We left St Vaast at round 9am on a morning suffused with hazy yellow sunlight. The light indecisive breeze made a mockery of the onslaught we’d endured in the preceding weeks, and failed to fill Joker’s sails. We motored on, over a pewter sea, as the clouds closed over our heads. The sun was just visible, reflected as scattered molten-silver stars winking in the grey undulations.
Our approach to the harbour was heralded by an island looming out of the mist on the port side, topped by an angular building. Isle St Marcouf, named for the hermit who lived there, was subsequently used as a temporary prison for criminals awaiting deportation to the New World. These days it’s a protected bird colony and property of the French Ministry of Defence. In the UK, too, there are plenty of MoD properties kept relatively wild by all those ‘keep out’ signs. It seems a shame we can’t resist destroying wilderness unless the men with guns put a fence round it, but it’s all I can think of to thank the MoD for in recent years. I only hope they’re not using the peace and quiet to dream up more imperialist resource wars, but what are the chances?
Our plan was to head for Grandcamp Maisy, a smaller and less touristy harbour near the D-Day beaches. Their lock gates closed at 1pm, and though it took longer than we expected to get within sight of it, we were there with an hour to spare. Sam was keen to avoid any risks, and the chart plotter showed shallows between us and the entrance. The tide was still falling and if we ran aground, we’d be stuck there for eight hours, possibly overbalancing in the mud.
I wanted to go for it, but I’m a lowly First Mate. Sam is the Skipper and must be obeyed, if only at sea. So at the edge of the shallows, we swung round to point at Isigny sur Mer. From the chart plotter it appeared that the tidal river running through it never sank below our required depth. We’d moor there for the night and head to Grandcamp in the morning,
It was a dreamy, unsettling journey to Isigny. Our chart showed us where it thought the shallows were, but evidently it was a movable feast. The angels (or municipal seafaring services) who think of these things had provided red and green buoys in a winding path through a wide expanse of water. They were set so that as you passed between them, the next pair were just visible on the horizon. Past the first pair, we crossed a clear line between blue wavelets and brown ripples where the river abandoned itself to the sea.
It was another mile of buoys before we reached the river mouth, and another mile of scrubby grass and a few isolated farmhouses before we saw a mooring place. We tied up triumphantly, and heated some stew to celebrate our first ever uneventful, disaster-free crossing.
As we ate, we mused that there wasn’t much of a tideline visible on the riverbank. We’d thought the tide had been falling for a while, but that now seemed unlikely.
It began to rain as we traipsed along a bouncing, rickety pontoon towards Isigny to find some internet. At the other end of the pontoon was a man with a dark ponytail and moustache, eating a sandwich aboard a dark red wooden yacht. We tried some halting French to do with ‘depth?’. He came to the rescue with his excellent English.
“Yes, the whole river disappears. Sloping mud on both sides. There is no escape.“
I’m a bit tired of relating tales of woe by now. Suffice it to say, our foolishness in miscalculating the tides did not go unnoticed or unbemoaned by us, nor was our three hour stint adjusting ropes and buoys and beaching legs in the rain particularly enjoyable. Nor was it the highlight of our lives attempting to sleep in a cabin tilted at a 45 degree angle. Sam took it rather harder than I did, as a personal affront to his skippering abilities. I quickly entered a zen-like state of acceptance, put the kettle on and practiced the ukulele in our crazily tilted cabin until blisters popped up on my fingertips.
We awoke around 8am, to the second rising tide of our brief and underwhelming stay in Isigny. Neither of us had slept well through the night’s rising and falling tides and the various angles and creakings they entailed. I’d had a particularly weird dream involving Tony Soprano, a small white dog, sacrificing the hair clippings of my childhood best friend to a vengeful river, and anxiously taking acid with my Dad at an extremely hedonistic festival staffed by disillusioned, infighting environmental activists who’d once hoped it would be a sustainable organic farm. I was still unpicking the threads of it as we chugged back along the sparse line of buoys towards Grandcamp Maisy.
As we approached Grandcamp Maisy, the waves knocked us playfully from side to side and the wind belted in from starboard. As usual I was helming while Sam anxiously consulted chart plotter, horizon and depth sounder. My job is much more fun, and in the bright sun and steady blow it was like riding a spirited horse. I belted out songs at the top of my lungs as the shape of the town resolved from a huddled skyline into distinct buildings.
The entrance to the marina is a narrow walled corridor that needles out from the coast. To hit it I had to aim slightly to starboard as the wind was pushing us quite hard. There were a few observers watching from the harbour entrance, and as ever I felt rather wonderful and mystical arriving by sea, forging through the elements to safety.
I aimed the boat perfectly, and as we pootled into the sunlit marina I was able to guide us with nary an untoward bump into a berth on the visitors pontoon.
As we tied up and took a breath, we felt our luck had changed. The air was summery soft, and rippling nests of light spangled the boats. I fried up a breakfast as Sam booked us in.
He came back with a sack of freshly caught scallops and some warm bread, and we spread our hamstery bedding on the deck to air.
We called a nearby farm registered on the WWOOFing website. The owner, Dominique, was surprised we had made it to Grandcamp Maisy- she’d expected to collect us from Isigny. It turned out we were 20 minutes’ walk from her homestead. Having bought the scallops, we decided to stay on Joker for supper that night and head to ‘Le Chateau’ in the morning.
Stretching my limbs in the sun, utterly comfortable and feeling the pride of another successful crossing, I was overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that the stone face of winter had finally cracked a smile. I had a happy little weep. After succulent scallops, we slept with the hatch open for the first time in months.
At 10am Dominique picked us up in her car with our bags and drove us up the hill. As the car swung into the courtyard we wriggled in our seats like kids, utterly delighted.
‘Le Chateau’ is an arrangement of 16th century grey stone buildings, named for the castle grounds they were once part of. The actual castle was burned down in 1879, when the owner’s husband lost it in a game of chance and couldn’t face telling her.
Dominique, now 62, grew up next door with her aunt, when her grandmother lived at Le Chateau. Dominique fetched water from the well and worked in the garden and with the animals from an early age. Her grandmother raised cows, kept horses for travel and farm work, and grew her own vegetables. When her husband went to war, she took the reins of the land in her own hands, and never handed them back. Dominique often quotes her saying ‘A l’homme, la force. A la femme, la ruse’.
After raising 7 children, Dominique now lives here with her youngest son Hugues, a 20 year old fisherman who works on his older brother’s trawler. Her daughter Julie and her three children live next door where Dominique grew up. One of the buildings is a B&B- Dominique’s chief cash income.
We were shown to our room by Felicity, a regular helper from the UK who’s been coming here every holiday for the past three years. She’s studying French at Durham University and has become fluent, partly thanks to her time here. She’s practically one of the family.
The room’s warm yellow walls and wooden floors glowed in the morning sun, streaming through white and green drapes. Set with intricately carved wooden furniture, including a wide bed heaped with white and yellow covers. A complicated golden clock stood on the mantelpiece flanked by fans. The en suite bathroom with its deep green tiles and stenciled daffodils on the walls was about the size of our living space on Joker.
Slightly overawed, we put our things away and came downstairs. Dominique sent us out to explore the garden and pick 30 sorrel leaves for lunch.
The garden, the garden! Our feet, accustomed to wobbly boat and pontoon or hard concrete, squidged exquisitely on the tufty grass. Bees bumbled round our heads. A constellation of birdsong scintillated in our ears. Fruit trees elegantly fingered the air, shy buds about to explode into blossom. We wandered into a field at one end and were approached from all sides by frolicking baby goats and a fuzzy, serene donkey.
Lunch was potatoes with boiled eggs from the henhouse and tangy cream and sorrel sauce. Pudding was a buttery raspberry clafouti.
“I make dessert for every meal”, said Dominique.
Are we dreaming?
The long, long winter had drained the fun from our mission. Even the absurdity of being cooped in the cabin was wearing thin.
Dmitry Orlov says that one useful skill for a future of fuel shortages is acclimatisation to the cold. From what I’ve read about recent changes to the jet stream, the UK and Northern Europe may be experiencing Orlov’s Russian winters more often in future. By the time we arrived in St Vaast I’d already begun this process. On days when the sun shone, I’d stroll to the showers in three layers of tops and an open hoody, past locals huddled in thick down jackets, hats and scarves. By mid-March, our rare visits to the local bar felt like entering a greenhouse. My face would flush bright pink and I’d sweat at the temples within five minutes of sitting down.
We may have been acclimatising but it was hard on the body. Normally healthy, I had successive waves of infections, colds and injuries. One day, three of my fingers and three of my toes swelled and turned red, and didn’t go down for two weeks. Luckily we hadn’t yet tried sawing my wedding ring off.
I had a breast lump scare, and visited the doctor, blood test clinic and chemist- clutching carefully scripted questions culled from Google translate. It turned out to be an infection and disappeared just in time for the sonogram. I was ushered out through a waiting room full of worried middle aged women, feeling silly and carrying copies of the scan pictures. I handed them to Sam: “Here’s some pictures of my boobs!”
He was a bit disappointed with the grainy B&W streaks but I liked to think it was a new perspective on a familiar view.
Initially charmed by St Vaast, we were, by now, very much over it. The familiarity of grey cobbles, festively battered trawlers and often-shut shops was breeding, if not contempt, then a bone-deep weariness. Finally we gave up on the weather conditions giving us a perfect day to dry out and fix the propeller. We booked a lift-out.
It was one of the coldest days yet. Our outboard struggled through the ceaseless gale to the other end of the marina, where the lifting crane loomed like an outsize Tonka toy. We passed under its immense wheeled legs and threw a rope up to the man who leapt from the corner cab. Two dripping blue slings scooped into the water and under the curved hull of our home. We clung to the rigging trying to breathe easy, as Sam, Joker and I rose into the air. Once level with the concrete yard, we hopped off and watched Joker trundled across the yard, lowered onto wooden blocks and metal brackets and trussed in place.
Borrowing a ladder to climb onboard and enter the weirdly still cabin, Sam and I got the parts together. We crawled underneath to replace the broken bits of the propeller. It was fixed within 2 hours, despite the ice particles flying into our faces. We wouldn’t be lifted back in for two days.
Those two days were probably our lowest point since realising we couldn’t live on Lexia. Without the sheltering dip of the marina, our stern was hoisted to face the sea, our door in the teeth of the wind. Chips of ice flew in every time we cracked the hatch to fire up the stove. Joker vibrated harshly on her brackets, and without power all the warmth ebbed out of the hull within an hour. The cold crept inward.
The first day we huddled inside. Laptops clicking, tea brewing, wrapped in sleeping bags. The second day our internet stopped. Orange sent us a chirpy text saying their tariffs had ‘evolved’. Our previous river of free data would now cost 12EUR for every 300 megabytes. I read and dozed, feeling floaty in the head. It was too cold to keep my hands out of the covers for long enough to make jewellery or sew.
Strangely, considering we’d just fixed the boat, we discussed returning home. The winter had sapped the life from us. Every week we’d thought it must end, and every week we’d been wrong. Even now the boat worked, the wind might not let us go. We had never been so much at the mercy of the elements in our lives. It felt like staring at a carved granite head the size of a mountain and willing it to smile at you. I started to understand how prayer and sacrifice could seem like a good idea.
But ultimately it was the sheer irrelevance of our discomfort that sunk in. We could scurry back to the UK, to my Mum’s house or a friend’s sofa and snuggle in the warm, because clearly this was too hard for our pampered little selves. Or we could just accept that it wasn’t going the way we had wanted, and wait to see what would happen next.
The next day we were lifted back in and wrestled Joker back onto Pontoon E. Bobbing merrily on the water, with the heater on, all seemed possible again. The next day, the wind slackened and the sun came out. We checked the weather. In a couple of days we’d be leaving St Vaast.
The wind in St Vaast is a living presence. Stepping out of Joker’s amber cocoon, it howls around your ears and batters your body, pushing back as you press forward. As you step from the open quayside into the grey village it slackens, only to rush back and wrap your head in discordant chimes as you turn a corner. It’s been battering St Vaast without respite for the past six weeks. When the claustrophobia of the cabin gets too much, I stamp around in it until my face is pink icecream and the wind feels like an invisible crowd squeezing the breath out of me, screaming me deaf.
Now that April is here and the Easter holidays are upon us, the cobbled streets are full of English people. I’ve been struggling with loneliness over the past few months, wishing for a human encounter beyond polite GCSE-level stammerings in shops and bars. But now, in a cafe packed to the gills with Brits, I’ve no desire to say hello. Their talk is of shopping, wines and cheese. Gadgets the kids want. One family is updating their Facebook pages on their smartphones and bickering in the comments. They’re on holiday. Increasingly, I’m not sure why I’m here.
As regular readers will know, our planned journey South towards the Med on the good ship Joker has been beset by mechanical failures. We’re currently stuck in St Vaast-la-Hougue in Normandy. We’ve been waiting for the tides, the daylight and the wind and cold to coalesce into conditions that will enable us to dry Joker out again and try to fix her propeller. The wind has shown no signs of slackening for weeks. We’ve decided to spend the few hundred to haul her out of the water and onto hard standing for the repairs.
Meanwhile we’ve been on walks along the seashore and into some of the surrounding farmland. We’ve foraged mussels, winkles and a few stray oysters washed loose from acres of beds. We’ve eaten bladderwrack seaweed and I’ve picked up shells, stones and bones to make into jewellery. But we’ve spent much of it sheltering from the elements in our small cabin.
Having internet access makes this less boring and enables us to keep in touch with friends and family, research places to visit when we do get moving and keep up with news. But when we’re both plugged in, tapping away on our respective laptops, we may as well be anywhere. And that is frustrating.
Sam is a born schemer and tends to use his connected time more productively than I do. He’s inventing things, fixing websites, campaigning on Twitter.
Turning to Facebook for a taste of the banter and closeness I miss so much, I find myself skipping in an unfocused way among depressing and flippant articles linked to by friends. A cynical chuckle here, a gasp of outrage there. The past few days it’s been a barrage of rhetoric about inhumane Tory cuts, rape, feminism’s pedantic internecine battles, climate chaos and suffering all over the world. I always make the mistake of reading the comments.
The cumulative effect is hideous. I fret to escape, as though I were a battery hen forced into this hunched stare by a wire cage. Pecking away at information. Knowing it will hurt.
That’s when I leave the boat, and the wind takes me. It is powerful, clean, huge. It speaks with one voice, sounding like thousands. I’m pushed along the coast like the rest of the trash, seafoam slung across my back in white shocks of salt. I climb slick rocks piled high to form the bowl of marina, and face the sea. As darkness falls, the horizon turns jade green and the lighthouses flash out their warnings.
The wind tries to blow me away. And I want to go.
Continued from Part 1
In the morning Joker was packed in snow, her lines festooned with ice teardrops. The power was still out. As I disembarked onto a skiddy pontoon a foot across, Sam chirped “If you fell off now, you’d probably die”.
Death averted- this time- we trudged through the storm to the Capitanerie. A generator burred in the jagged air. The heavily swaddled staff mooched around a dark office, devoid of screen glow.
Our cheese had arrived! Cradling it, we questioned the staff, who now said the powercut spanned the whole area of Val de Saire. “Maybe tomorrow” was the grim prognosis, complete with Gallic shrug. We asked how the tidal lock gates were powered, and they assured us the generator had it covered. Sam rigged the beaching legs when we got back. Just in case.
Huddled in the cabin, our breath swirling, we briefly succumbed to the homesick bliss of West Country Cheddar. We listened to French radio for any mention of the powercut, specifically any nuclear factors. France gets a higher percentage of its electricity from nuclear than any other country- over 75%, though Francois Hollande has pledged to reduce that figure to 50% by 2025. Sam was ready to whip out the Potassium Iodide tablets, but after a lot of amiable wittering about delayed trains and icy roads we figured there was no meltdown. Either that or they kept it very quiet.
We layered ourselves in all the warms we could grab, pocketed 70 euros and climbed back out with a rucksack each. Trudging through St Vaast, all the shops, restaurants and banks were closed. The streets were empty and white. Then again, it could just have been lunchtime. The French take lunchtime very seriously.
It was good we had cash on hand, because every cash machine was dead as a doornail. By the time we reached the SuperU we’d decided there was no chance of it opening. Approaching the doors, we saw a pair of crossed snow-shovels barricading the front door and a note: ‘Ouverture a 15h’. It was 14h. We made a snowman to pass the time. Several families arrived in crisp, clean snowsuits and hovered by the doors.
When the doors opened, about 20 people went in. Sam sprinted for the meths and snagged two large bottles. By the time we’d loaded up two baskets in the half-light of flickering flourescents, it was all gone. There was no bread. The meat counter was shut but there were some prepackaged cuts in warmish fridges. As we joined the queue the shop assistants closed the doors to new customers.
People ahead of us started groaning and packing up to leave without their food. Were the staff thinking twice about opening in this half-assed fashion? But they were only turning away people who tried to pay by card. It seems the generator wasn’t up to running the tills. We realised the people ahead of us had written all their prices on a piece of paper and were reading them out to the cashiers, who were unable to scan anything. We ceded our place in line and cadged a pen and paper. We had to return all our weighed veg as the electronic scales were out of action. Nobody had thought to replace them with a set of battery operated scales from their own stock, and had I felt more confident about my language skills I’d have suggested it. When we returned to the queue an old man was being turned away with nothing, having selected only unpackaged veg.
We struggled back to town with full rucksacks. By the time we reached the marina the sky was clearing, the wind had softened and the first meltwater drooled from the icicles. We bundled back in, fired up the stove and I made an epic beef stew with barley and carrots, boiling the bones for stock. We ate, then watched a film. In the morning the sun was bright, the air was calm, and nearly all the ice was gone. The power came back on around midday.
We could have lasted another week with the tinned and dry food we had, but we wouldn’t have felt as nourished and happy as we did after the stew. Having cash on hand was mere coincidence, but it kept us warm and fed. We’ve set some aside in the boat for emergencies, and ordered some freeze dried meals to backstop the fresh and tinned food.
And that’s how we spent the two days the local papers called ‘Apocalypse Snow’. It was by far the longest and coldest powercut I’ve ever experienced, and despite a few inconveniences we were able to enjoy it. Others in the area were not so lucky. 44,000 homes were without electricity, 14,000 without telephone service. Some were stuck on trains for two days, while others sat around in emergency help centres or camped out at work.
Many bonnehommes de neige were born. All perished.
It was a Monday. That’s Sam’s day to work, doing web admin for a UK charity. Generally I get on with blog stuff, video stuff or do some ‘wifing’. On this particular Monday I had my wifing planned out. Starting with checking the Capitanerie for our replacement propeller parts and a separate parcel of West Country Cheddar- the only UK foodstuff we really miss. Both were sent by my Dad, who is kindly hosting the spare engine that came with Joker in his garden. We were also low on food so a trip to the shops on the edge of town was in order. There’s a shop full of local and organic veg, next to a small but well stocked ‘Super-U’ that seems to have a little bit of everything.
On waking there was a scrim of ice over the windows and the wind was deafening. I had a dim memory of Sam leaping out bare chested in the middle of the night to lash down our flapping sail cover and returning all clammy and shivering. I crawled out of the hatch and set off along the pontoon, only to find I was woefully underprepared. Chunks of sleet were smacking me in the head and coating my jaunty poncho with a breastplate of ice. My hands ached, then numbed. I returned to Joker and grabbed gloves and a coat. The wind belted in from the sea and through the basin of boats, unravelling mooring lines, ripping sails to shreds and making the masts sing.
I got to the Capitanerie and picked up a parcel. Not the cheese. Damn. Just the parts for the propeller and drive shaft. Heading back into face-shredding horizontal ice I decided that further wifing would wait until tomorrow, and we had enough supplies on board to last another day. Another week or two if we ate small amounts of boring stuff.
On my return I lashed down the sail cover again, wishing I’d replaced the broken hooks with the ones I’ve had in my mending bag for three months.
An hour after I returned the power went out. Sam’s tethered internet phone lost reception, so he couldn’t communicate with the Bristol office. We tried to call the Capitanerie but- duh- same problem. We used the VHF radio, and when they came on line they said the whole town was in a blackout. It seemed likely that St Vaast’s electricity would be a priority, while we might wait forever for somebody to fix Pontoon E. So we waited. And waited.
We normally run an oil radiator on Joker as long as we have shore power. She’s so small that it’s possible to warm up quickly as long as there is a bit of heat, but without, the cold starts to crawl implacably through the hull. Home very quickly becomes a floating fridge.
I boiled up tea and hot water bottles on the alcohol stove and we set up the bed and got in our double sleeping bag.
I drew and read for the rest of the day and made a curry for dinner, while Sam wrote on his laptop about his latest inventions. I appreciated the excuse to draw for once, and came up with some good ideas for things- real 3D things, not made of pixels at all- that I could make. I also realised my handwriting has become disgusting as a result of typing everything. So I’ll be working on that.
Next time an icestorm is heading in and the larder is running low, maybe I will decide to head out for supplies immediately rather than settling in to wait it out. But on the whole we were well prepared for a temporary powercut. We switched the light on later than usual but our 2 leisure batteries were charged and the 12V power held out well.
We had light, some power, and the ability to generate more using our solar panels and a TEG (Thermoelectric Generator) unit on the meths hob if we needed it. The hob also helped heat the cabin, but we had to keep the hatch open to avoid carbon monoxide poisoning. Even then, the condensation soon drenched every inch of the walls. But our bed was warm. The only trouble was, we were low on meths.
Outside, total darkness swamped St Vaast, as the snow pelted down.
Continued in Part 2…
Continued from Part 1 We trudged down the howling stretch of freezing mud and huddled under the hull. The wind rocked Joker on trembling toothpick legs. We could already see that the rope was so tightly wrapped round the prop that it had busted off several parts, now lost to the sea. Sam crouched under the teetering bulk of our home and cut the blue knots away. I tiptoed back onto Joker to turn over and see if the drive shaft still worked. After a few knocks with a hammer, it did. But we couldn’t risk using it until we’d replaced the parts.
Now we knew the state of play, I left Sam to puzzle over engine diagrams and identify what parts we were missing. I had my own delightful job to do. Skip the next paragraph if you have a sensitive stomach.
During my illness I’d temporarily forgotten that even one piece of kitchen roll will clog our sea toilet. I’d chucked one down after a bout of vomiting and there it had stuck. For two weeks. It’s impossible to fix while afloat, as soon as you detach the U-bend the sea wants to come in. Which we can’t for obvious reasons allow. I have never smelled anything quite as disgusting as the green-grey rotted-puke and paper plug I had to dislodge from the pipe. I spent the next few hours cleaning the entire cabin so the smell would dissipate. After I’d stopped dry-heaving I was able to reflect that having a very simple plumbing system puts the power to deal with it firmly in our hands. Lucky us!
By now it was dark and freezing. Sam’s boots had filled with mud. It was four hours before we’d be afloat again. We hauled ourselves to a brasserie, who fed and warmed our mud-smeared carcasses with astonishing good grace.
At around 9pm the waves were lapping at the hull again. We lowered ourselves back onto Joker, ready for another hour or two of tightening ropes. As Joker started to lift off, she rocked side to side, the beaching legs stomping like an angry toddler. Pretty disconcerting, but only for fifteen minutes or so. Soon we rose with the tide, our surroundings back in friendly motion.
Knackered, frozen and frazzled, we listened for the bell signalling the opening of the lock gates. We really wanted to be back in the marina, safe, warm and still. The gates were less than 100 yards away.
The bell rang. The gates cracked open. We made a big mistake.
I loosed off the lines and pushed off with my foot. Sam kicked our puny outboard into reverse and we swung out into the tidal current. Suddenly we were helpless. Sam was still trying to reverse to get a good run at the gates, but in the meantime the current was dragging us straight for the seawall. As soon as we were pointing forward, our speed increased. I started shouting at Sam to steer this way or that, but he clearly had no say in it.
“Are we going to make it?”
I leapt for the bow, as I would in any other impending collision, to fend off with an arm or foot. 2 metres from impact I realised if I tried it I’d probably lose a leg.
I remembered that from the in-flight safety card. I threw myself to the deck with my arms around my head.
Joker shuddered and slammed bow-first into the wall. The current and driving winds were too strong to let us rebound. We were instantly slammed side-on to the wall and pinned there. The impact had bent the steel guide for the anchor chain at right angles, but otherwise no damage. Tough little boat.
What followed was a shaken, slightly hysterical wait for the tide to slacken. At one point a huge fishing boat lumbered in, nearly hitting the first seawall and looming far too close before making it through the gates. As soon as the pressure of the tide slackened a bit, the wind took over and we slammed repeatedly against the side.
We were just getting up the courage to try, when a man ambled over. The weathered, competent species I instantly recognise as ‘Proper Sailor’. We stammered through a stilted explanation in Franglais of what we were doing, that our main engine was broken and the other too weak to help much. Nonplussed by our indecision, he grabbed the bow line and hauled us along the seawall, while Sam fired the outboard and I fended off with my feet. As soon as we got past the wall the tide swung us into the main channel and we were swept into the marina, waving gratefully to our rescuer.
Feeling embarrassed but relieved, we chugged back to Pontoon E. Though free of the tide, the wind was still fierce enough to stop us reversing into our berth. We can’t plug into the shore power unless we moor astern, so we got off and manoeuvred Joker with her lines. The wind helped a bit too much on the final heave, and she crunched against the pontoon, breaking our self-steering gear. Joy.
We plugged in a battered, mud-spattered Joker and crawled into bed, firing up the heater and cracking a bottle of very cold red wine.
We still had to wait a week for parts before trying to fix the prop again.
We are not good sailors. Yet.
The long-awaited breath of spring has been blowing damn seldom in the past couple of weeks. That goes for both the physical and emotional weather.
It was with light hearts we finally set off from Pontoon P in Cherbourg, a day of gentle breezes and hardly any swell. A couple of miles out the sun broke through the clouds, and we chugged merrily towards our destination. The sun sparkling on the water and bouncing off the white rocks and houses on the coast filled our heads with dreams of the Med and the long summer days, when we’ll be able to leap off Joker and into the blue without freezing to death. We were moving!
Twenty minutes from St Vaast, I returned from my blissful doze at the prow to see a green float skating through the water behind Sam. Before we figured out what had happened, the prop choked and seized up. Looking around, it became clear we had motored into a patch of lobsterpots. We tried reversing but it only wound the rope tighter around the prop, which started making ugly noises. Luckily we have an auxiliary engine onboard- a 4 horsepower outboard. We fired it up but made no headway. The pot was anchoring us to the seabed.
After about half an hour trying to reach the lines now stretched between the keel, prop and tiller, and attempting to dislodge or drag the pot, we gave up. With sinking hearts we radioed the coastguard. At first they offered to send a lifeboat to tow us, but shortly after we hung up we were able to snag the rope attached to the pot, cut it and get moving again. We limped into St Vaast on our outboard, with a creaky rope-choked tiller, cursing ourselves for allowing the day to lull us out of watchfulness.
St Vaast (pronounced San Vaaah) is a beautiful little tourist town, though this time of year it is resolutely out of season. The marina is choked with fishing boats of all sizes, their trawling nets sprawled on the quayside and hanging down their sterns like elaborate hairdos. The local oysters are famous- gathered from acres of metal grids that emerge from the sea at low tide. Every day you can see a yellow tractor and scores of yellow-clad workers combing the grids. When the tide gets really low, the locals turn up in waders and head out to the tideline to gather mussels.
Sam went out in his trainers and got a good sized bushel from closer inland, but when we ate the stew I made from them we learned why the locals go so far out. Our moules were a bit sandy, but more importantly they were full of tiny crabs, who must have been taking shelter. Sam’s dangerously allergic to crustaceans so next time we’ll make the trek out of crab country. Once the unfortunate crabs were rooted out the moules were gorgeous.
We celebrated our 13th anniversary, with oysters. A few days later we both came down with colds and stomach bugs. (No connection with the oysters.) The balmy sea breezes and sunny days bit down into freezing mudswept winter again as we recovered.
Drying-out day arrived and we headed out out of Pontoon E and past the harbour’s lock gates, to lash our house to the seawall, put out a pair of scaff-pole stilts and wait for the tide to go out.
It was bitterly cold and our hands numbed as we tied ropes to corroded ladder rungs and ancient bollards. Joker slapped against the wall, rocked by the wind and waves. We took turns popping out to loosen the lines as we descended to the seabed.
Sam worried that the beaching leg nearest to the sloping wall may get stuck and put us at an awkward angle, but it was impossible to tell until it happened. His worries came true. As the water receded and the port leg still hung free, the pole on the wall side dug into hard rock, pushed the starboard side up and began to creak and crunch alarmingly at the small plate anchoring it to the hull. The port leg finally hit the seafloor and sank deep into soft mud.
We crept around the cabin like ghosts, listening for the creak. Freaked out as always by our gently swaying home becoming landbound. Our surroundings, normally in barely perceptible motion, suddenly look like artifacts in a museum: stiff, distant and fragile. Coupled with the fear of a sudden wrench and fall as the leg tears from the hull, we felt we were balanced in an eggshell. Below the hull, the waves gurgled and slapped, then were gone.
“Of each important thing in your life, you will be prepared to answer two very important questions: “Is it collapse- proof?”, and, if it is not, “What can I do to make it collapse-proof?” If, for a given thing, the answers turn out to be “No” and “Nothing” then the very important follow-up question should be “How can I live without it?” – Dmitry Orlov, Reinventing Collapse*
This quote will take several posts to unpack and should throw up some interesting questions and challenges. So I’m making a thread out of it on the blog. I’ll cover water, food, housing, clothes, warmth, culture, art and other things that are in our lives and yours.
But since it’s Valentine’s Day: How collapse-proof is our marriage?
We had our (non-legal but very serious to us and our loved ones) wedding ceremony on August 2007. We’d already been together for 7 years. In three days it’ll be the 13th anniversary of our first meeting, dancing to breakbeat in the Students’ Union. I was 18, Sam was 21. Our eyes met, we danced up to each other and snogged. Never looked back.
These days, in our early thirties, we feel very married. We fart and burp and bicker and shamelessly wear our worst pants. But despite the total shredding of that spangly veil ‘La Mystique’, we are still in love. We’ve both changed a lot in 13 years, but we’ve managed to keep falling in love with the new people who grow out of who we were. With luck we’ll continue to do this for the rest of our lives.
Our biggest adjustment so far has been around the prospect of collapse and what it means for our shared life plans. Letting go of our house and mortgage in Bristol and making a real effort to mentally and physically prepare for an uncertain, unstable future has forced us to reassess what is vital to us. We’ve realised that whatever physical place we find ourselves in, we can be ‘home’ to each other.
We’ve had many years of earning very little- sometimes I’ve earned more and sometimes Sam. Whoever had more always helped the other out. We’ve had struggles over it, but nothing serious so far. We’ve never made a big thing of spending money on ‘romantic’ consumer items like restaurants, hotels or gifts. I took my cue from Sam on this early on. Our best times involve cheap boozy fun in fields, at house parties, camping in dunes at the Gower, sitting by rivers or on mountains.
It’s clear from Valentine/ Xmas /Wedding/ All Marketing that tying money to love is profitable. It sets up big expectations- especially in women- that ‘if he really loves you’ he’ll splash out on a sparkly thing. If I’d got together with someone else at 18 who was into spending money on me I’m sure I could have got used to it; enough to miss it when such things become unaffordable or just not there. But as things are it’s never been part of our relationship.
When we were living in Bristol, I’d wear makeup about half the time. I have various grooming rituals, mostly involving hair. Too much, too long, too shaggy, too greasy, wrong colour. But after 13 years I can honestly say none of it makes much difference to Sam. He notices when I look nice, and even says so sometimes. But it doesn’t trouble him if I wear the same clothes for a week at a time, put on a few pounds or let my leg hair grow.
Even if it did, I can cut/wash/remove my hair myself. If I can learn to make soap, my beauty routine- such as it is- will be collapse proof. A collapse headstart on a woman who ‘needs’ to spend money on gym, waxing, nails, facials, haircut and highlights every month to feel attractive- or who is under pressure from her partner to keep to a certain standard. I’ve narrowed my wardrobe down to favourites that fit in a tiny cupboard-including Sam’s absolute favourite dress ever- and for my cosmetic stuff, a tiny tub. I have a coil fitted so we don’t rely on well-stocked shops or medical centres for contraception. Sam washes daily and occasionally remembers to shave. When he gets shaggy round the ears, I cut his hair. Fine with me.
Living in a confined space together on Joker and the even tinier Lexia, has tested our marriage. Over time it’s had a calming effect on how I express anger, which I’ve always had a problem with. I can’t shout, slam a door and disappear for a sulk. He’s going to be sitting there a couple of feet away the whole time. Awkward. Sam tends to snark quietly so he can still do that, but he does it less when it doesn’t provoke all that fun shouting. So in all, a win.
The elephant in this loved-up room is how we continue to collapse proof our relationship when/if we have kids. We’d like to start a family soon after returning from this voyage, and a major part of this mission is figuring out that very question. So I’ll definitely be back on that subject.
When Sam first started talking about Peak Oil I had a choice whether or not to accept this potential collapse paradigm as a template for our shared future. Having shared goals is vital to a longterm partnership, so my choice would alter our marriage. It took a lot of talking, tears and planning to get to a point where I could accept it. I was afraid of the future. But embracing it has opened up a world of possibility, of new skills and new friends and stronger connections. They balance out the fear.
Hope you’re feeling some love, wherever you are.
*I’ve been re-reading Orlov’s brilliant book. It’s a study of what happens when a superpower collapses, based on his experience of the Soviet Union. He uses his observations of the effect of economic and societal collapse on the lives of ordinary people to predict the effects of the inevitable US collapse. Most of the lessons are transferable to living in the UK and EU, or any industrialised nation that runs its infrastructure on debt and oil. It’s a scary book in some ways, but his delivery is so dry and funny and stoic that I find it oddly comforting as well. He puts it thus:
“I refuse to become emotional or sentimental about collapse. My life is my own, and, may superpowers fall where they may, I will try to live it as best I can. I hope that by keeping this book alive I can help others to do the same.”
Fixing it required new lines and making eye splices at the ends. The man in the Chandlery showed Sam how to do it, but he’d half forgotten by the time he got back. Our finished splices were knobblier than they’re probably supposed to be, but strong. Now for getting to the very top of the mast to clip them on. We’d tried this on Lexia, without success. Sam’s vertigo made it tough for him, and I wasn’t strong enough to haul myself up, even in a harness strapped to the halyard. But this time Sam created two loops round the mast tied with prusik knots. The top prusik was clipped to my harness with the halyard, while the lower one had a hanging loop for my foot. I was able to shuffle them up alternately, and every time I stood up on the foot loop, Sam would take up the slack with the halyard.
It was a freezing sunny day. Sam hunched anxiously by the halyard, hauling whenever I stood in the red loop, the mast swaying in increasing arcs. After that, the work: stretching full length, legs braced against the mast and unscrewing small metal rings with a Leatherman while the windvane ticked and spun overhead. I detached three broken ropes and attached new ones- making the screws tight enough to withstand the sea winds. I was a little freaked out at how long it took and how cold I was getting, but rushing was the best way to ensure an accident or just a crappy job that I’d have to fix.
By the time I touched down, two hours had passed. It took me about six to get the cold out of my bones. But when we took Joker out and her sail stretched high into the sky on her strong lines, I was proud.
So what else was stopping us? A few weeks ago our gas stove developed a leak. The locker where the cylinder was stored vents into the cabin, so we decided it would be safer long term to abandon gas. We bought an alcohol stove, but the only affordable one we could find was in Scotland. It was scheduled to be picked up by courier just when the entre UK was swamped in snow- so it just arrived yesterday. We had a day of snow on Joker too, but just the one. The end of January brought a premature breath of Spring- it seems the worst of winter is past.
The other night in one of Cherbourg’s lively dive bars, we got talking to a sailor who told us in sepulchral tones of ‘Le Raz Blanchard’- A tide and wind phenomenon that embarassingly we hadn’t heard of, Le Raz has a reputation for smashing boats with the force of its white topped breakers. He told us we must under no circumstances leave in Joker without asking a proper sailor how to avoid Le Raz. When pressed, he said he was too drunk to go into it. Cheers then!
According to a bit of judicious googling, it seems that despite Yian’s fateful warnings we’re unlikely to encounter much of La Raz Blanchard on the way to St Vaast. If we mess up the timing though, the fearsome Raz Barfleur round the corner may get us.
But of course we’ll be careful. Very careful. As much as you can be when getting yourself and all your worldlies chucked around by the elements. It’s time to move on again. We’re just waiting for the wind.
Since Xmas and New Year we’ve had a lovely but not very newsworthy life meeting enchanting strangers, practicing our French and eating wonderful sausage and bread. But two days ago our new friend Gaelle invited us to her college and introduced us to an artist who was preparing for the maddest Channel crossing imaginable.
This morning Nicolas Koch and his friend Max set off from Port Chantereyne, Cherbourg- not 200 yards from the good ship Joker- to cross the Channel on a creaky old pedalo.
Yesterday we arrived at the Ecole Superieure Arts et Media to find the two men putting the finishing touches to their craft. The drive shaft rested in a Spiderman paddling pool (the ‘lifeboat’) which churned merrily as they practiced for their ordeal. They expect to be at sea for 48 hours, but you never know what plans the sea might have.
The pedalo has a compass, front and stern lights, and a book of laminated pages including tidal and coastal maps. The cover is a glowing fish ‘n’ chip shop sign ‘for motivation’. A disposable camera faces the twin seats for those Kodak moments of camaraderie, exhaustion, and quite possibly terror. All these vitalcomponents are stuck on with Gaffer tape- affectionately called ‘Scotch’ in these parts.
Nicolas wheeled out a handbuilt trailer- of sorts- cobbled out of two-by-fours, and friends from the school helped them lift the pedallo on and lash it down. Thinking we’d do the interview at the school, we had come with all our kit- but as they were heading to our marina we decided to help them get there first.
It was lucky we did. 200 yards out the front left wheel fell off. After crossing the main road and struggling on, we lost the front right wheel. From then the whole edifice had to be pulled like a cart for 2km, on the equally shoddy back wheels. Sam intercepted their inevitable demise with half a roll of ‘Scotch’ and helped lift the back over tramlines and gutters. Halfway, I felt too guilty to keep filming and took my turn. The least we could do; they should really have been saving their strength.
Two friends rocked up, slightly pissed, and helped with the final stretch. We all decamped to Joker and broke out the vin rouge, 6 people being the maximum we can seat without injury.
“I was going to walk from Cherbourg to the other branch of the school in Caen. I looked it up on Google maps but there was a glitch- it showed that the route was via Portsmouth, the other side of the Channel. So I decided to go that way. There will be an exhibition in Caen when we make the return journey.”
His art has long been concerned with unusual journeys. For a project in Helsinki he cycled a stationary bicycle programmed with the terrain he’d have to cross to get to Russia. He obtained the correct visas and presented them at the imaginary border. “It was a journey without all the best bits.” At least we know he has strong legs.
To our delight, it transpired he was one of only four people to actually reach the mountaintop in Bugarach for the ‘End of the World’ on December 21st. As we’d expected he said the tiny village was packed with journalists and documentary makers filming each other, and lots of police; very few actual believers. Although Nicolas didn’t believe in the end of the world, he and some friends worked to provide the desperate journos with material. They created DIY spacecraft and sculpted a model of Bugarach’s ‘sacred mountain’ out of mashed potatoes in homage to Spielberg. They carried it through the streets and then ate it. It made the Telegraph and the Guardian.
You need a licence from the port authorities to cross the Channel from the French side. (As far as I know, the English let you risk your own neck). Nicolas researched it and decided there was no way he’d get permission, but decided to cross anyway. “If they stop us, we will try again.” When asked about his hopes and fears for the future, he said “I think artists are perhaps well prepared to have hope for the future. We are used to having nothing, living without money, helping each other. And we have a lot of dreams.”
As morning broke, we grabbed our kit and cracked open Joker’s hatch. The first thing I saw was a crew of marine gendarmes disembarking and heading to shore, where the pedalo sat on the broken trailer. We reached the pedalo to find them tutting and shaking their heads, chuckling incredulously. After a few minutes they returned to their boat. I hadn’t followed all the French, but the boys looked happy enough.
But they know you’re going to go?
Both Max and his father are experienced sailors, which may explain why Max looked more nervous than Nicolas- checking the horizon where a band of dark cloud loomed. Max’s father arrived in a small sailboat. He will accompany the pedalo, providing hot drinks and meals and a vital bolthole when their legs give out or the waves get too much.
A small knot of friends gathered to wave them goodbye. And without fanfare, they climbed aboard and pedalled out of the harbour.
Max’s father followed in his yacht. The coastguard swept out behind, to keep them in sight until they were out of their jurisdiction.
As I write this, they are pedalling to Portsmouth. Wish them luck and send good thoughts for a safe journey. They may well need it.
I bloody love crazy people. They make life worth living.
Views differ on the detail of our doom. The immediate reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles, solar flares, epic galactic alignment. Or the Mayan thing, yeah? Or all at once.
Either that or we’ll evolve spontaneously and ascend to the next level of existence. This is the fluffy side of the apocalyptic coin, available in a spectrum of extremity from mild hippiedom to utterly barking. Could be aliens and interdimensional beings appearing in a blaze of rainbow light, briefly posing like a psy-trance flyer for everybody’s FlickR, then laying down some groovy new rules for living. Like, love each other, yeah? And quit killing the planet. Mmmkay?
Others believe 21/12/12 heralds a gentler but very real greater ‘awareness’ or ‘synchronicity’ across the world. As the date is in our collective consciousness, it’s a useful peg on which to hang some collective soul-searching. There’s no denying something of the sort is needed. Our hyper-indebted economic systems, spoiled-child consumption habits and the state of the climate and biodiversity are species-threatening challenges if we don’t radically rethink.
So I try to stay open-minded. But I can’t see myself on the same page as the ‘starseeds’ addressed by galactic guardians the ‘Arcturians’ on this site. Apparently we’re about to Ascend to a 5-dimensional Earth.
“Dec. 21st marks the cosmic tipping point… At this moment of change, we will enter into an eternal space of NO TIME… the Age of Aquarius. Earth is shifting into an eternal NOW… as we rise higher in frequencies to the New 5D Earth…
Yet… there will be people who will not even know that the ascension energy has been downloaded into this planet. What does that tell you?… you have to tune yourself to the frequencies.“
Advice elsewhere on the site for bringing on the Ascension includes ‘if you want to rest, rest. Don’t feel bad about eating a particular food you like’. Top tips for increasing your psychic ability: “surround yourself with pleasing objects, textures and spaces”. There are online love-ins for concepts and nebulous deities. Perhaps not so different from me eating brownies in a red sleeping bag while on Facebook. It is nice and all, but I don’t pretend it’s bringing on anything more than a sugar crash and a case of laptop neck.
Our collective problems are on this 3D Earth. They involve the complex interactions of natural processes, live 3D beings, physical resources and man-made systems. I personally find both the ascension and the apocalypse myths tied to a finite date deeply lazy ways to conceptualise the problems and opportunities we actually face.
If it is the fluffy one though, we’re golden- unless we’re required to believe in Artcturians or respect David Icke. We’re already reflecting on the course of Western civilisation and our own place within it, and trying to expand our knowledge and outlook. Some alien help in the form of a cosmic download would be appreciated but I won’t hold my breath.
But what if it’s the Ball-of-fire/Tsunami/Rapture/Bad Aliens/ Pole flip scenario?
As followers of this blog will know, we set off on our boat much later than intended. Originally, we thought we’d have made it to the South of France by early November. Our plan was to hunt down and interview esoteric survivalists and bemused locals in Bugarach- for various reasons tipped as THE place to survive 2012. But it’d take us too long to get there in Joker now. In any case it appears the journalists descending to cover the story are massively outnumbering credulous refugees. They’ll probably all end up interviewing the same 5 people, who’ll be too busy enjoying the spotlight and doing vox-pops to realise they can’t even get up the mountain:
“Indeed, access to the peak and its underground tunnels will be banned between 19 and 23 December…The roads leading to the village will be screened and, if strong inflows, they will be totally blocked.” -Mayor of Bugarach
What an apocalypse pooper, eh?
So where can we go to be safe? Luckily, Joker is an Etap. Though Etap are no longer making yachts, their marketing has been hijacked by popular doom prophet Patrick Geryl. Etap’s very typical yacht ad has been overlaid with subtitles exhorting Etap owners to abandon dry land on the 21st December. Geryl claims that as Etaps are one of only a few small sailboats to be built with a double foam-filled hull, they are ‘unsinkable’. As all landmasses will be inundated with planet-sized tsunamis when solar flares blow out the magnetic polarity of the globe, Geryl calls for all Etap owners to be ‘out at sea’, gathering to wait out the apocalypse to ensure the survival of the species. Etap are now hosting this adapted video on their website.
So we figured we’d hedge our bets. As it happens Friday’s supposed to be a nice day, so we’re heading out of the marina for a bit. Perhaps we really will be swept aloft for the ride of our lives over the cracked and gushing wreck of the world, only to found tiny colonies on new landmasses with a few weird Etap owners and mountain dwellers. But if it stays nice, we’ll think good thoughts. In case the starseeds need help getting to the fifth dimension.
Good luck, and STAY ALIVE!
Five hours in as the sun rose, the swell slopped side to side, swinging and dropping Joker with a greasy slosh. The waves reflected the dawn, and as they became visible I found it hard to keep my eyes on the horizon. Hypnotically beautiful ever-blossoming hillsides, huge blue fists of power, glittering with infinite jewelled detail. The longer I watched them, the worse I felt. John and Sam’s cigarette smoke seeped into my nose and somehow blended with the waves in my head. I felt increasingly sleepy and held onto the guardrail with one numb hand. Trying to concentrate. On the horizon.
When the engine first overheated, Sam got out of the cabin and checked the water filter. It was no longer full of water. Must have fallen out like last time. I filled cups of water and passed him the grip tool to open the filter while John steered. It ran again for a while.
We had some wind, but it wasn’t giving us quite enough speed to make our desired landing time. When the alarm went yet again, we let it cool for a while and sailed.
My haziness cleared and crowded in again almost rhythmically. At a moment of clear windy elation when I felt on top of the world, I caught a whiff of smoke and suddenly turned and puked over the side. I felt instantly better. And nobody saw.
We tried the engine again, and it seemed fine. But as the boat heeled over more, Sam kept checking the filter. Sometimes it was pumping just fine, and other times it emptied out and had to be refilled.
Soon it was my turn to helm again. For the first 40 minutes it was the best place for me- looking straight ahead, flicking my gaze back to the GPS. Gradually my arms got tired from the constant hauling and I went off course more often. That meant looking at the onboard instruments more to get the angle right, which sent my inner ear spiralling into queasy wallow.
We had seasickness tablets and some freaky goggles allegedly recommended by the French Navy. But they were inside. If I tried to rummage through the oscillating cupboards I’d really get ill. The same went for getting the camera equipment out. My mental state focused down to holding onto my guts and the tiller at the same time. The possibility of speaking and moving, even moving my eyeballs too fast, receded like the clashing waves.
John and Sam would have helped if I’d asked. But they were increasingly busy dealing with the engine’s many issues. The overheating became more frequent. Sam checked the filter, inspected the impeller, refilled and refilled the system with water- only to find it had emptied out ten minutes later. We couldn’t keep running the engine in that condition- it could get seriously damaged.
I was puking more often, shuddering and twitching afterwards. John took over the tiller and recommended that I sit with my eyes closed. It worked- I didn’t mind the motion by itself. But after 20 minutes, every time I opened my eyes I felt worse. I was clutter, and the deck is not that big. I went below and lay on the bed.
Sometimes it occurred to me that at least I should turn on a GoPro and record my misery. Or Sam’s, as he tried one thing after another to fix the engine. Or John’s, as he worried over our pace and the chance of missing the tide on our way into Cherbourg without a working engine. I’d grope across the cabin, occasionally finding an audio recorder or GoPro. I’d open my eyes and sit up. Instantly I’d have to drop it and belt for the heads, at one point skidding over and cracking my shoulder. After hours of this, most of the batteries were dead and I was losing my will to open my eyes at all. Every hour or so they would fly open of their own accord and I’d haul myself upright for more racking heaves.
In the early afternoon, we sighted France. Just at the same moment, three tiny dolphins arced through the water next to us- then ahead, underneath, back to the side. John lit up as if they were dear friends he hadn’t seen for years. I felt the same but could only totter to the hatch for a minute.
The next time we restarted the engine, the key produced a dull click. Sam, at the end of his tether, was convinced the overheating had finally burned something out. John said it was probably the solenoid and started bodging copper wires into the starter. Nothing worked.
After a very tense few minutes, John remembered that our battery was new, and cracked open the cabinet. The rocking had dislodged one of the terminals.
As it got dark, the wind and waves calmed. I was able to stand, drink water, even helm a bit. The engine problems continued, even as the lights of Cherbourg got closer. Seven miles out, our sailing pace was far too slow. Sam finally gave up on the main engine and started the auxiliary outboard, fed from a large petrol tank. Shortly after we picked up speed, it died. The line from the tank wasn’t pumping properly.
John was losing patience. He went below to check the Almanac for rescue services- warning us it would probably cost £500 to get a tow. We were both crushed, but Sam made a final valiant effort. He persuaded John to help him decant petrol from the tank into a 5l bottle, and from there into the engine. They both got covered in it, which at least put paid to the smoking for a bit.
On that engine we motored the 5 miles into Cherbourg- stopping to decant and refill it. As we approached the harbour entrance, Sam was worrying over whether to refill once more.
“We don’t want to be stuck 10 feet from the pontoon”.
In the end, that’s exactly what happened. At 9.30 pm, 5 1/2 hours after we’d planned, we arrived in the marina. We’d been crossing the Channel for 19 hours. The engine choked and died as I teetered on the prow with a line gathered in my hands. We all stood quietly as Joker drifted, inch by inch, to a very gentle landfall.
Bonsoir, Cherbourg. Et Bonne Nuit.
On Monday 10th Dec I got up at my parents’ house for the last time. I made coffee and packed all the clean clothes hanging in their laundry room, while Sam worked on his laptop. Mum gave me a lift to Portsmouth Harbour, where I took the Gosport Ferry for the last time and lugged the bags to Royal Clarence Marina. On arrival I collected the new boat battery from the marina office, installed it and set it charging while I changed the stern light and cleaned the boat top to bottom.
Sam arrived at about 2pm, dropped off his things and left to buy boat bits and a current almanac from the Swindlery (Chandlery- a specialist boat equipment shop with essential boat items at absurdly inflated prices).
By 6pm Joker was in fine fettle, gleaming and neat inside. On the outside, her lines were flaked and stowed, engines fuelled, oil checked, the new flag I’d sewed for the Dan buoy fluttering from its pole.
I made a final trip to Morrisons for food supplies, nervously overstocking just in case we ended up at sea longer than we expected. On my return I cooked and we slept at about 9.30. John the skipper was due to arrive at midnight, and we planned to set sail at around 2.30am.
Just before midnight I was having an odd dream in which my friend G-Bob lectured me on the importance of healthy eating and a good night’s sleep. Suddenly Joker lurched and the hatch squeaked open. John had arrived.
It was minus 3 degrees outside, and the pontoons were slick with ice. Over the next two hours we made a huge thermos of coffee, filled and stashed hot water bottles around the cabin and dressed for the voyage.
Not my most svelte look. I resembled the Michelin Man with a bobble on top.
At around 2.30am we untied Joker and set forth into the night once more. Like last time it was dry and clear, though the moon was a tiny sliver in the sky. A ‘Hunter’s Moon’- which was the name of the yacht my parents shared with two other families when we were kids. One of my early boat memories is playing at scrubbing her down as a tiny child, while my parents did the real work- and eating boiled eggs with my friends Sarah and Polly on day trips to Hayling Island when I was six.
For the first two hours I did a lot of helming, keeping us on course with the help of the GPS and floating compass. After that John suggested I take 2 hours rest and come back on standby duty, and that the three of us rotate shifts that way and try to keep warm in between. My two hours of dreamlike dark and strange thoughts weren’t what I’d call sleep, but I was pretty comfortable- even when the wind picked up and started slewing Joker around. I loved hearing the water rush around the hull and knowing I was lying on my own bed- safe, but not safe.
But by the time I was due back on, the waves were sloshing us around in a circular slopping motion. Staying on course meant regularly having to yank the tiller hard.
I decided I’d be better off on deck with John than ‘on standby’ in the cabin. I’ve been seasick before and keeping my eyes on the horizon is always the best way to fend it off. It was cold, but also quite lovely. The dawn was gradually seeping in to the East as we finally passed the last of the Isle of Wight.
Sam sat below- not having much luck with sleeping. And about 30 minutes in, the dreaded sound of the overheat alarm put paid to his rest once and for all.
We’d consulted Steve the engineer about the surprise overheating problem when we got back to Gosport after the first failed attempt. After describing the checks on the pipework and seals we had undertaken, He said he thought it must be a fluke. That the water had run out of the cooling system when Joker heeled over, and an airlock had formed when we restarted and it tried to pump more water in. This was pretty demoralising in a way as it meant we could have carried on last time if we’d tried refilling the water filter by hand. But in another sense it was encouraging- meaning our engine wasn’t possessed by an evil spirit.
We had tried to recreate the problem in harbour but the engine ran fine on the pontoon or in harbour & the weather was too extreme to head out for the waves in the intervening time, so we were really down to crossed fingers.
Now we were about to experience a real series of challenges…
Our long-awaited crossing to France began beautifully. We set off at about 10.30 with our hired skipper John. He was a friendly but quiet and understated RYA teacher and professional skipper, who grew up in Brentford, sailing with his father and uncle. He came recommended by Des Purcell, who was going to do it originally. After going over the boat and the passage plan and eating dinner, we all had an hour’s snooze, then got up and pulled quietly away from the pontoon that had been our home for the past month. We expected not to set foot on England’s shores again for at least a year.
As we came out of Portsmouth harbour the cross currents pushed us from side to side and made inky-blue swirls with deep ripples and eerie smooth patches in the moonlight. The wind was right behind us.
After motoring clear of the harbour we raised Joker’s gleaming white sail and heeled over smoothly. Soon we were sailing with the moon ahead and to port, getting around 6 knots- nearly top speed for Joker. We turned the engine off and flowed with the splashing and sighing all around us and the stars sharp above. I was helming. Standing braced against the side and feeling like the goddess Artemis. It was all silver, black, white and icy, but with all my layers on, not too cold. I hadn’t dared hope the conditions would be so perfect for our crossing.
Then a low battery beep went off inside on our carbon monoxide alarm, and Sam went in and checked it. The battery for the boat electronics was getting low and we were relying on it for our GPS and radio. It was a surprise as we’d had both batteries tested the previous week and they seemed fine.
We started the engine to charge it, at fairly low revs. It overheated within a couple of minutes. It’s been about 4 weeks since we heard that screeching alarm.
John the skipper asked us about it and we told him about the previous overheating problems and how we fixed them. He decided we had to turn back, and Sam agreed. We sailed back into the wind which was much colder and bumpier, and came most of the way to Portsmouth on long slow tacks. Then we had to fight the tide to get in. Faced with the prospect of tacking back and forth in the bitter cold for the next 3 hours until the tide turned, we risked turning the engine on.
It started with no problem and behaved perfectly and got us back to Royal Clarence with ease. Which, though very lucky under the circumstances, almost made it worse.
We arrived back at the same berth at about 5.30am. John left almost immediately. He was pissed off as well. He said if the weather was going to hold he’d stay and try again. But that beautiful calm moonlit window is shut today and for the next few days- the wind is coming up again.
We’re sat in the boat now, essentially still in bed. Sam just went out in the bitter cold to get some DVDs, curry and booze from Gosport. But everything was shut. We are writing off today as a dead loss. Tomorrow we’ll track down Steve the engineer and get him to help us take the exhaust off the engine. That’s the last thing we can do to try and fix this problem before actually getting the whole engine lifted out.
Today is not a good day. We both feel numb from the let-down and physically exhausted. But until the alarm went off, last night was utterly amazing. And even the trip back had its moments.
I’m a novice sailor, and the fact that we hired a skipper to take us across the Channel means we were willing to abide by and respect his decision-making. It was very very cold out there, not somewhere you’d want to be for any longer than necessary- so any of our kit malfunctioning could have been dangerous. The chance that our engine may not have been reliable enough to get us in against the tide at Cherbourg was no doubt not worth taking. But I can’t help reflecting that we’d never have switched it on until we got to France if we weren’t relying on generating electric power for our radio and GPS in the first place. When we get to the Med and things warm up, I’m very keen to practice navigation without electronic gizmos and staying out long enough to catch the tide instead of motoring against it. The feeling of dependence on the engine and GPS was very strong last night. But people have been sailing for millenia without them. In the long term I’m keen to take a leaf out of Roger Taylor‘s book (all of which are well worth a read.)
(These pics- the nice ones- are courtesy of Judith Smyth, my mum- from a sail we took with them the other day. FYI, we did record much of these shenanigans and there will be footage and pics forthcoming a some stage. But today I just cannot be arsed. I hope you understand.)
We’re ready for the Channel crossing. Since moving onto Joker and out of my parents’ house we’ve shed a further chunk of inessential stuff, installed a new radio, a new radar reflector, our wind powered self-steering, dried out and scrubbed down the hull, dried out and had a survey done, then dried out and replaced a corroded skin fitting the surveyor found.
The drying out process has been quite tense every time, as we didn’t want to pay the £200 or so for a lift-out so we spent £45 a time to use the concrete square by the main pontoon at Wicor Marine, which empties at low tide.
While Lexia had a bilge keel that could settle on the ground, Joker has a single lifting keel and detachable beaching legs- two scaff poles with square bases that suspend from metal rings at the sides. The manuals we received had two different heights for the keel to balance with the legs, and both have been wrong. Once the keel touches down and you realise you’re off balance, you can’t wind it up because it’s bearing weight.
So each time we’ve dried out we’ve had to lash Joker to the pontoon with all the lines and fenders we have, attach the halyard (sail-hoisting) line and make sure she is leaning onto the pontoon side instead of outwards. Even with the keel and pontoon taking lots of weight, it puts a lot of pressure on just one metal loop embedded in the deck’s fibreglass. We step very very carefully around onboard and underneath, and can’t relax until the tide comes back in.
We’ve taken Joker out in the harbour a lot and got familiar with our routines for setting off and coming in. We’ve been watching the weather and getting nervous about the shortening days and worsening cold, wind and waves.
With all this and our sailing inexperience in mind, Sam decided we needed some help on the crossing. It’s a journey of about 12-15 hours, and if we want to do most of it in the light, we will need to set off at about 3am. Even then it’ll be getting dark when we arrive, tired, at a new harbour. Getting in somewhere is always the most stressful bit of a sail for us. (Here I touch wood, as this is only true in the case of an uneventful sail where mega-waves, breakages, hidden rocks and inescapable currents don’t intervene).
I pushed a bit for going it alone. I feel like this adventure has been pretty tame so far, despite the crash course in marriage and the many things I’m learning about boats. But Sam is the skipper and the journey would be a nightmare if we were tense and exhausted the whole time. It’s also possible that my role as the ‘storyteller’ of the trip and accompanying desire for drama and excitement gets in the way of my eye for safety. So we found a skipper and RYA teacher who agreed to help us over the Channel and paid him a deposit. Des also said that if all goes well he could give me my RYA Competent Crew certification on the way over.
Unfortunately the weather has been bad for both the initial windows he had in his schedule. The day before yesterday we thought we’d be going on Friday and got VERY excited. Then Des emailed us and said he couldn’t do it. The next window is looking like 2-3 December, and even then we’re at the mercy of the weather. So pray to the sea gods for some clear days around then, people.
In the meantime we’re paying around £200/month at the well equipped Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport. If we had housing to pay for as well, that would seem like a lot. As it is our house, it’s cheaper than living almost anywhere in the UK. But we’re SO ready to go.
Calling on Poseidon, Amphitrite, Aeolus, Triton and the Nereides. Sirens, Harpies and Gorgons, stay away!
In the morning we sheepishly phoned the marina office for a lift to shore.
The next few days were all about finding an engineer to look over the engine and tell us if it was worth keeping. Russ had thrown a spare engine in with the price of Joker, which was great- but it was the same deal there- an unknown quantity, and it would have cost hundreds at least to lift it in and try it. Much better to keep it for spares.
My parents’ friends Lynne and David have a boat at Gosport and spoke very highly of their engineer, Steve. Trusted personal recommendation is always good, as anything to do with boats can be insanely expensive. You might as well shell out for someone honest and competent.
We set off to Royal Clarence Marina in Gosport. Just as a test we got her up to top revs, but the overheat alarm went off, so we crept along for the rest of the journey. Steve met us on the pontoon, a friendly grey-haired man who seems to live in his overalls.
It took him ten minutes of listening, feeling and tapping to tell us our engine was definitely worth keeping. He then told us four easy things we should try for starters: Cleaning the water filter, changing the impeller, changing the oil and running Mortar acid through the engine instead of RydLyme. I took notes on how to do it all. Steve then helped us get booked in at the marina, and said he’d be on call if we needed anything. Later that day he drove Sam out to buy the acid. For all this he charged us £20. Gent.
The spare impeller was in Joker’s well-organized lockers already, as were Russ’ tools and a full bottle of fresh engine oil. We embarked on an afternoon of unscrewing gnarled old engine bits, pumping out gross black oil and pumping in the fresh golden stuff. Sam replaced the impeller but on reassembling it all, the gasket wasn’t working and water squirted out of the screws. We tried tightening it in different way a few times, but by that point we were hungry and Sam was getting despondent. I legged it to the shops to get some food.
When I returned, Sam was beaming.
“I cut up the cardboard from a houmous tub and made a new gasket!”
This is the kind of DIY that makes him the happiest. It worked really well too.
I got involved, and started getting to know the engine. This is the first engine I’ve ever really met. They’re clever aren’t they? Apart from the planet death and that.
After a couple of runs of acid, plenty of gak was coming out of the seawater cooling system. We slept another night with it fizzing away in there.
Joker is a lovely home, and luxurious compared to the tiny bare bones arrangements in Lexia. There are cupboards and lockers all over the place to we can compartmentalize and tidy away. We’re never surrounded by mind-tangling piles of objects. There’s a gas stove we can stand in front of, so we don’t need to hunch over our meths burners hoping they don’t fall over and spill liquid fire through the cabin. The interior is lovely mellow wood instead of bare white fibreglass. By far the biggest improvement is the space. I’ve realized through living on Lexia that I don’t need a big living space. But for comfort and sanity, I do need to be able to extend my arm and not hit anybody else in the face. And I do need to be able to stand up to put my trousers on.
And having a flushing sea-toilet is BRILLIANT. You can sit down, your head doesn’t hit the ceiling, your feet can rest on the floor, you hand-pump seawater up into the bowl and pump it all out again so it stays clean. There’s fresh running water foot-pumped from the water tank to wash with, and you don’t have to emerge sheepishly through the sleeping/cooking area with a bucket of piss and slosh it out over the side.
These are my new definitions of luxury, and Joker fulfills them all. It’s also nice to have new definitions of luxury. We’ve learned something about our needs.
The next morning we went out in the harbor and ran the engine hard. For 30 minutes. No overheating. Sam kept checking with a spot thermometer Steve lent us. It was a little high but never over the limit.
Once we realized we’d fixed it ourselves, I wanted to do donuts. Sadly, Sam’s more sensible approach to boating prevailed. But we celebrated that evening.
Research, self-education and perseverance. Those have to be survival skills.
Sam is not one to give up easily and hand over the reins to a paid professional. It’s one of the things I admire about him; he learns from every experience. The Googling and forum-consulting resumed with a vengeance on our glum return from the broken engine. First of all we needed a tool to remove the broken screw. Despite dire warnings that we could further damage the thread, we bought a device for a few quid and returned to Joker the next day. (Sam’s note: Don’t buy the screw in ‘easy out’ but rather the square one that you bash in.)
Russ was deep into moving boats about, as Ashlett Sailing Club geared up for lift-out- when most boat owners get their boats out of the water for winter. Russ pushed us some more on how we were going to get her off the moorings, and joined the chorus of pessimism on our ability to fix it.
I offered to help Sam get the thread out- I’ve got those spindly fingers after all- but he refused. I was vindicated when 15 minutes later he emerged with a huge grin and brandished the remains. Turned out I’d been turning the damn screw the right way after all! It was just old.
Once we’d replaced it we poured in the RydLyme, ran the engine for a minute to fill the cooling system, and returned to Mum and Dad’s with all our fingers and toes crossed.
The next day Sam went back and ran the engine for 20 minutes, tethered to the pontoon. To his delight, no overheating. We packed that evening for our first night on Joker, planning to head for our new moorings up the Portsmouth estuary, towards Fareham.
It was clear from our first cosy night on board that we’d made a major upgrade. I could bang on about the comparative sanity and comfort of Joker’s interior at length, but that’s for another post. This one is all about struggle. Yeah.
The following morning Sam was buzzing all over in a state of nervous tension- checking tides, GPS devices and getting me to turn the engine on and off repeatedly. I was excited about our first inter-city journey on Joker, but it was only a hop down from Southampton.
“It might be fun love, you never know. It’s a gorgeous day. People do sometimes sail for pleasure.”
His response was a tight smile before he jackrabbited off to the prow to check the halyard again. Within minutes of setting off I was at the helm, in seventh heaven. I love the ‘present-ness’ and the relaxed but ready focus that is forced upon you when sailing. All was bright light, big sky and sparkling water. Oh, and about six different yacht races right across our path. We probably should have gone round the edge but I enjoyed the challenge of getting through while keeping out of their way and managed it very smoothly. Even Sam’s nerves couldn’t resist the beauty of the day and Joker’s sleek movement. But we couldn’t glide forever.
The tides into Portsmouth are really tough as the currents around the Isle of Wight cause a lot of criss-crossing. There’s also a lot of huge traffic at the entrance to the harbor so small boats have to lower their sails and go through a tiny channel at the edge. As we entered the tide tried to sweep us first to the West and then as we got further in, it was straight against us. Shouldn’t be a problem, at full throttle. We revved the engine and started making headway, though it felt like an inch at a time. The rickety wooden rollercoaster of Clarence Pier loomed, almost static to starboard.
Suddenly, the overheat alarm howled.
We eased down the engine but it kept going.
I shouted to Sam “Let’s go back out and sail some more, we can come in when the tide turns”.
“We can’t. We have to get in now. It’ll be dark later.”
He leapt into the cabin as I held the tiller against the currents. A steady stream of yachts passed us with ease on both sides, pinning us in the middle. I could hear Sam on the radio.
“We’ve got engine trouble, can we get some help?”
We were advised to get out of the main channel and wait. We still had to keep the engine running to stay in one place.
Ever the documenter, I glanced at the GoPro strapped to the transom. Maybe we could at least get some footage out of this.
The battery had died.
Two men in a dinghy with a 60 horsepower outboard reared up towards us, and Sam threw them a line. The noise was immense and it got tougher to hold the helm straight. The rescue guys were shouting and gesturing at me to cut the engine, but the boom was lashing back and forth and Sam was still up at the prow. I leapt into the cabin, cut the engine, leapt back out and started grabbing at the boom. Sam was still sat at the prow, yelling
“Get up and STEER! STEER!!”
So I did. As the dinghy towed us into slack water I felt crushed and angry. I’d been left in the cockpit with everything to do and no help, just panic, yelling and blame.
“You’re a shit Captain, Sam.”
“Sorry. I know. I’ll work on it.”
In sullen silence, we made it on low revs to our new moorings. Past patchy grey battleships and a constellation of white yachts. Past the landmarks of my hometown, transformed to a fairytale skyline by the view from the water. Our spirits gradually calmed and lifted.
Our new moorings were windswept pontoons strung across the estuary, inaccessible to the shore except by dinghy. Sam had a rummage for our dinghy oars. We hadn’t packed them.
We ate some bread and sardines from the cupboard and went to bed.
On leaving London we moved into my parents house in Southsea, Portsmouth- half an hours drive from Joker’s moorings. We liked Joker and had put down a deposit but still weren’t sure if we were going to buy. But, having sold our home for the second time this year, we had to go somewhere. And home is where they have to take you in.
My parents are as ever immensely helpful and generous. Dad is retired and Mum’s time is flexible since she stopped commuting so they’ve been able to take part in our adventure more than expected. Taking a day to help us through the 29 locks at Devizes was brilliant. Mum making two trips from Portsmouth to London and back with everything that we had on Lexia was far beyond the call of duty. But we really want to get sorted and get on with our adventure. Otherwise it’ll be ‘How to Survive the Future? – Move back in with your parents!’ (Not inconceivable as a decent future strategy, but more on that in a later post…)
When we arrived we went straight to Ashlett Sailing Club for our first outing. The owner Russ was there, a tanned 86 year old Cornishman who lives 10 minutes from the club, and manages the moorings. Russ is not up to skippering these days, but his friend Chris offered to take us out. Chris is an influential club member, and his passion for junk rigs shows in unusual numbers of them at ASC. He was warm, friendly and commanding- the sort of overwhelmingly competent person who makes me nervous to touch anything on the boat for fear of revealing my ignorance. But that’s my problem.
Joker is an Etap 26, a boat made with an ‘unsinkable’ hull. (We never tempt fate by typing or saying this without quote marks). While the Etap can get a hole in it and leak, its double hull with foam filling has enough buoyancy that even full of water it can still float and sail.
It’s caught the attention of 2012 Doom Prophet Patrick Geryl and friends, who have picked it out as the best possible place in which to survive the apocalypse. They’ve created this video from the old Etap marketing material, and Etap are hosting it on their site. So, perfect then! As far as we can make out, Joker is the only junk rigged Etap in existence.
Chris was a big fan of Joker and talked her up as we set out into the harbor. And boy, was he right. On top of the cosy wood paneled living quarters, her light, elegant cream sail glides up and down the mast like butter and catches the wind beautifully. Her hull responds so elegantly to the wind and waves that I felt exhilarated and safe at the same time.
But the engine? Argh. Having heard there were problems with overheating at high revs, we insisted on running it hard. After 5 minutes at top speed, the overheat alarm was howling like nails down a blackboard.
For the rest of the trip, I could see Sam trying not to enjoy it too much- staying cautious and holding back. I was already head over heels and ready to throw chunks of capital from our house sale at this gorgeous boat until she was good to go. Sam is often more sensible than me.
Back in Portsmouth, he started calling engineers. The first one sucked his teeth and said the engine was discontinued after 2 years in production, the parts were impossible to get, and it was likely the engine block was irretrievably clogged with sediment from its seawater cooling system. Ouch. Over the next week Sam threw himself into in-depth Googling and sailing forums, and started seeing some light.
We decided to try running RydLyme, a sediment-loosening acid, through the engine, and if that didn’t work we’d reconsider buying Joker. A replacement engine, including lift-out and work costs, would come to about £5k. We couldn’t justify that, and started looking at other boats. But none of them measured up.
Next time at Ashlett, Sam got down in the engine hatch to try and open the tube to pour in the acid. I took an interest at first, then retreated to the comfy seats to read. After 15 minutes of strenuous upside-down grunting, Sam asked me to try.
“You’ve got skinny wrists and little fingers”.
Pleased to be involved, I slipped my hands round the engine block and got the spanner in position. I started the awkward process of unscrewing a weathered piece of brass I couldn’t see. Sam hovered anxiously, asking if it was hard to turn and if I was sure it was the right direction. I was pretty sure. It was getting looser. We joked that I would be the mechanic from now on. I felt good. Learning stuff. Doing stuff. Competent.
Suddenly, the bolt fell off. Sam rummaged for it and brought up a sheared-off stub of brass thread. The stub was warped and wedged into the pipe, impossible to get out with our tools and hard to reach.
“You must have turned it the wrong way.”
“Have I broken the engine?”
“Oh. Shit. Sorry.”
We reeled for a bit. I felt useless and cursed my dumb spindly hands and mechanical idiocy.
Out of a dull silence, Sam said “Well, we probably have to buy it now don’t we?”
Just then, Russ appeared.
It was hardly the jubilant transfer of ownership any of us had hoped for. Russ was sorry for us.
“This… it’s not how it should be, is it my boy?”
He knocked £300 off the asking price there and then. Sam and I shook on it gratefully, anticipating a long list of engineer’s bills.
On the journey back we swung between the excitement of committing to a beautiful boat, and the frustration of having to pay someone thousands to fix our problems for us. Even if we could get the brass thread out without damaging the pipe, there was still the overheating problem- and who knows what else?
Not, in any sense, ‘How to survive the future’. More like ‘How to make stupid mistakes and squander your resources’.
But maybe the interwebs could save us…
After two months as a trio, it was time to send Lexia out of our lives. But how?
Once we’d made the decision to switch boats we pootled more happily through our London times, gradually getting our legs under us again, shooting interviews and hooking up with friends. We started coming to terms with losing Lexia over the days, and getting cautiously excited about Joker- though we still hadn’t run the engine and had only paid a deposit. But as Sam heard nothing back from the ad on the sailing websites he became convinced we were going to have trouble selling Lexia. October is the time many sailors get their boats lifted out for the winter. That’s why Russ reduced Joker’s price- it’s tough to sell a boat on dry land. Being on a canal in London wouldn’t help with finding likely sailors. All the options we thought of for getting her anywhere fast, whether to sell or put back at her Bristol moorings cost at least a few hundred quid.
One morning along the towpath, Sam had noticed an intriguing and ramshackle arrangement. Two boats joined together, the front one an open sailboat 10ft long or so called ‘Scoundrel’, full of useful looking scavenged bits of pole and rope. The one behind it was a 17ft cabin cruiser called ‘Beryl Burton’, sitting low in the water and built up from the deck with a patchwork of wood and tarp in the shape of a Wild West covered wagon. But the part that really caught Sam’s eye was the cycle-powered propeller mounted on the back.
Sam had looked into cycle power for Lexia as we planned our journey, and if we hadn’t been planning to sail her I think he’d have tried to rig one.
A couple of days after Lexia went on sale, Sam was passing as Beryl’s owner was leaving- a tall man with a dark topknot and far-out eyebrows called Rob. He was proud to show off the propeller but said she was sinking and he had to bail her every night. They got talking. As a fan of low impact travel, Rob had done a lot of research into sailing and was interested in junk rigs. He needed a boat that was dry and safe, and what with the extra 5ft of room, he was excited to meet Lexia. He looked her over, and offered us a “great classical guitar” as part payment. Sadly we don’t need one.
We offered her for £1500, the break-even price for what Sam spent on her including the original purchase, but not including the hours he spent working on her. Rob took it on the chin and left to consult his friend Jules who’d helped him design the propeller.
In the meantime, Jamie from the Apocalypse Gameshow dropped by to collect a DVD of our films so far, to project at the show. (It’s a hilarious and cathartic exploration of the spectrum of apocalyptic myths and scenarios, in which audience members compete to join the Gameshow’s post-apocalyptic Dream Team. Another post and video to follow on that.) Jamie has an incredible store of tales from his 14 years living in the area. Apparently a bridge we passed under along Hertford Union canal was where the first ever train murder victim was shoved off the train.
When we told Jamie our battery had gone flat and the problems it was causing he suggested we visit his friend Jules who’d be happy to charge it for us. Turned out to be the same Jules who designed Rob’s bike propeller.
We drank tea at Jules’ place, a thoroughly hacked co-op house with food growing on the valley roof and healthy, ripening grapevines descending to the back garden. A nest of workshop and storage spaces were stuffed with tools, stacks of broken bikes and waste wood. When Jules was ready to leave he jammed on a bowler hat, grabbed a bike and summoned his yellow dog Spike. Five minutes later we were back at Lexia. Our sleeping bag, spread out to air on the roof, had been drenched in a heavy cloudburst. Before we could feel crushed, Jules had it bundled in his bike basket and the heavy battery strapped on the back. “I’ll dry it off in my bathroom. I’ve converted it to a sauna”.
Feeling more chipper, we went to our friend Petra’s house to take up her offer of washing and drying our clothes. On our tipsy return at midnight, Rob called us to say our bedding was ready. We went back to Jules’ house and gathered it up from the hot bathroom, fitted with a wood burner. It was soft, toasty warm and faintly woodsmoked. We went to bed feeling very well looked after, and hoping that Rob could get together the money for Lexia.
A few days later it was a done deal. We spent the rest of the week planning the next phase and hanging out on Lexia and at friends houses. I shot an interview with Emily James about activism and optimism, organised another with Mark Stevenson about technology and optimism and tried to document the moving out process while also packing, lifting and moving out. Sam planned, schemed and researched. And we both did lots more lugging of course.
In the meantime, at least 3 other people expressed a serious interest in buying Lexia. One guy was going to take her sailing in the epic race The Jester Challenge, which gave us a vicarious thrill on Lexia’s behalf. But in the end, Rob really needed somewhere to live, the circumstances were too perfect and he was too nice a guy to disappoint.
On the day, Rob and Jules spent hours helping us pack and fill Mum’s car. Mum made 2 heroic trips to take our stuff back to my parents’ house in Portsmouth.
As we left Lexia moored and empty on the canal, Rob was dancing from foot to foot with excitement, waiting to move in.
Goodbye Lexia. Sorry it didn’t work out.
And thanks to all our dear friends and new friends who fed us, helped us and made us laugh on our unexpectedly long stay in London. Like most places, I think it’s better by water.
Since moving onto the boat we’ve had to deal with new challenges in keeping clean. In the first week I swam a few times, and a few time used Dr Bronner’s rose scented Castile Soap. This stuff is made up of essential oils rather than the usual soapy chemicals so I felt fairly OK about using it in natural water.
As we travelled the canal water changed depending on the area- from river fed, clear streams to stagnant trash-strewn muddiness and back again. The morning after a lovely evening swim in apparently clean water, the cut on my right hand was puffed to double its size, pink and throbbing. I’d waited until it was closed to swim without the protection of plastic and gaffer tape but apparently not long enough. I was sure it was infected. This caused me to reflect on what you can actually do in a resource-scarce or collapse situation when an infection has set into part of your body. Emma Caton had given us antiseptic tincture for prevention but what about cure? Is it only antibiotics that can do that effectively?
If I’d been in Bristol I’d have gone to the doctor straight away- my right index finger is kind of important to me. As it was, I called NHS Direct while going through a lock and anxiously described my symptoms. Apparently the swelling could have been caused either by infection or by overstraining the joint pulling ropes, climbing ladders and winding lock gates since our departure. Either way, as it wasn’t leaking smelly pus or anything they told me to leave it and see if it fixed itself.
Weirdly it felt better as soon as I hung up the phone- which just goes to show a) that NHS Direct is a good gatekeeper for hypochondriacs who might otherwise clog up the waiting rooms and b) that just consulting with somebody and being told I could probably heal on my own was enough to make me feel physically better. The swelling went down within 24 hours, but 2 months later the joint still aches and I have trouble opening tight jars. So for anybody as foolish as me can I just say- don’t bust champagne bottles with your bare hand, however excited you are. And if you must, make sure it’s not your best hand.
Waterways aside, it’s easy to keep physically clean as long as you have a sink or tub full of clean water, and ideally soap and a flannel. Just doing ‘bits and pits’ will stop you smelling but you can rub down your whole body in less time than a shower takes. You need far less water and you can do it without splashing everywhere if you use a flannel and stand on a towel. It’s a good strategy for the scenarios we’ve been in along the London towpaths, when we’ve had to get clean at the sinks of public toilets without getting water everywhere. If the sink area is too public you can fill a squeezy water bottle and do it in the cubicle. Ah, the glamour. Again, at the beginning of the journey on isolated stretches of country canal we rigged tarps and showered in the cockpit. Once you’re in a ‘civilised’ city and cheek by jowl with your neighbours whose barges all have private indoor washing areas, that feels too exposed.
When we move onto Joker we will have an onboard toilet and sink and should be able to adapt that area to have showers in there as well, so our washing situation will be less squalid. While we’re between boats we’re obviously using my parents hot shower, and it still feels like gloriously profligate luxury.
We also washed our clothes at Claverton weir early in the journey, using Dr Bronners body wash and Ecover dish soap. We soaked the clothes in a waterproof tub overnight with the soap and in the morning kicked the tub around the field next to the river for ten minutes or so. Then I got into my swimsuit and rinsed each item, hanging them on nearby trees and bushes. It seemed to get the clothes clean, but then they weren’t that dirty at that point.
As time has gone by, cumulative grime has built up on our clothes and we’ve realised that our low-maintenance way of washing clothes is not getting any significant amount of dirt out. At one point we were also using a very sooty fuel for our cooking stove, so we’ve smeared a few items of clothing with apparently indelible greasy black marks. To be honest, we were fools to think it might work. It’s well known that the invention of the domestic washing machine was a major factor in freeing up women’s time and liberty for things like, y’know, careers and shopping and kittens and stuff. It takes serious time to do by hand. And in East London it is not an option- apart from all the gak IN the water, a thick coating of duckweed covers the whole surface most days. There are a few pedal and hand crank powered gadgets on the market, and also some 12V ones we’re looking at, but for now we’ve had a few friends in London take pity on us and lend their machines. Thanks Petra and Denise.
Hair! Hair. Hair. My birthday on 29th August was the last time I washed it with soap. I was inspired by my friend Gemma and her stunning barnet to take the plunge and give it the 4-6 weeks recommended on the interwebs for my hair to re-establish its ‘natural balance’and start self-cleaning. As recommended, I’ve tried to rinse it with clean water daily and brush it as often as possible. I’ve got past the worst 3 week phase when the texture resembled an overused dish sponge. I’ve got past the days when big smears of black grime accumulated on the sides of my hairbrush as I pulled the knots out. Now I only get small smears of black grime. I’ve been chafing to wash it with a nice harsh shampoo for the last 2 weeks. Sam keeps telling me it’s getting better and it is, a bit. But my hair used to actually be nice. And feel nice. And smell nice. Even though the worst seems to be over, it’s still stiff and unwieldy. I’d never want to wear it down, it morphs too easily into a frazzled Wurzel Gummidge or a slicked down Draco Malfoy- or worse, a bit of each. I wonder if it’s because it’s bleached- maybe the self cleaning doesn’t work if the follicle is damaged? Anyway I’m going to give it a few more days to clean up its own act, then either hack off the bleach for a low maintenance crop or retouch the roots and lay the foundations for a (relatively) high maintenance routine of washing, conditioning and re-bleaching that I probably won’t be able to keep up. Honestly, I’ve never talked and worried about my hair as much as in the past two weeks- I just generally don’t worry about hair- so something has to give.
I’m definitely looking forward to moving onto Joker and having just that little bit more private space to keep clean in.
On Monday we went to Southampton to view a bigger boat. She’s beautiful. She feels like a real home, small but with everything you need. Russ, who sold her to us, is in his 80s and has a frozen shoulder. He was quite wistful about parting with her but just wasn’t taking her out anymore. He’d just come down for a cup of tea in the cabin and watch the other boats coming in and out.
Lexia is a lovely boat, she sails and moves beautifully. While it’s warm outside you couldn’t ask for a sweeter moonlit shelter. What she isn’t is a comfortable winter home for two tall people. Maybe for two very small, very intrepid people. A pair of ninja pixies. (And if you know any, direct them here: http://www.apolloduck.co.uk/display.phtml?aid=271866)
Doing this voyage with Joker (still not sure if we’re keeping the name- suggestions welcome!) will mean having a toilet (as opposed to a bucket), large water tank (as opposed to three 5l plastic bottles) and separate bathroom and kitchen sink areas. It will mean that one of us can get up and get stuff done while the other lies or sits in bed. It means we only have to get up and face the day after we’ve got clean and properly dressed. (No more half-asleep, half-dressed urgent wee missions encountering surprised joggers on the towpath. Result.) It means getting up or going to bed can be achieved without disrupting our entire living space. It will mean things get lost less easily as there can be separate cupboards for our clothes, camera kit, food, utensils. It will mean things get less dirty less quickly, and eating will be safer as the place where we cook won’t be next to where our feet climb down into the boat. In general, storage and work surfaces for objects that need to be clean will be further from the floor. It will mean having a much more powerful engine to keep us well out of the way of huge ships and get us out of danger more easily if we run into rough weather.
It’s basically a great idea. It was a good decision to shake on buying her, especially as we got a good price.
But can I get Sam to smile this morning?
He’s been working on Lexia on and off for 2 years, and for 6 months she has been his main focus outside of work. He’s painted, scrubbed, sanded, fibreglassed, learned grinding and welding, bid for depth sounders, GPS, radios, waterproof tubs of all sizes. And now, whether we get her towed back to Bristol or sell her- the preferred option- all that work has reached a dead end. He keeps thinking of new reasons to be sad. The hassle of moving and getting rid of her, the waste of effort, love and care. Most heartbreakingly,
“I could have spent all that time sailing her”.
In contrast, my focus during that time has been moving out of our house, working on video edits and developing this project. Although it’s not as fully formed or funded as I’d hoped at this point, the site and videos are still happening and are portable from one boat to the other. Sam tried hard to get me down to work on the boat with him all that time, but I was usually too busy. As our departure loomed I was more involved, and now she’s been my home for a month, but the relative levels of our emotional investment are clear from Sam’s face.
I know he’ll get over her. Once we’re living on Joker, the apparent self sufficiency of her setup will prove to be illusory and he’ll have plenty to fix up and scheme over. That’s the nature of boats. In the meantime though, I spent a few hours last night showing Lexia some love and making her a comfier home for this last stretch. It’ll be sad to see her go.
We’ve been moored next to Regents Gate by Victoria Park for the past two weeks.
Since we arrived in East London we’ve been having something of a reassessment. Personally I’d been quite unhappy on and off after the first 2 weeks- though there were many wonderful moments. We motored through the last part of the journey, and any effort to stop and smell the roses- let alone meet somebody to interview for this project- was regarded by Skipper Sam as a waste of time. It was all about heading as fast as possible for the Channel and getting our tiny boat over before the weather turns too sour. If it was only the Channel crossing I could see us slowing down once we reached France, but I knew after that we’d be in a race with the winter. Lexia has a single hull and is hard to heat- she’s so small that having any kind of fire beyond our tiny meths stove is out of the question.
I could see all the logic in this. It’s the logic of survival. But we were bumping up against a division in our motives that has always existed. Sam would be happy to simply travel and have an adventure, while I need to make this project as good as it can be with the resources we have. Work is an adventure for me. I’m not so good at getting properly paid for my work to be honest, and I regard that as a separate skill that definitely needs working on. But making and sharing meaning, whether through film or performance, is something I need. I don’t think I could cope at all with these ideas around collapse and degeneration if I couldn’t make work out of it.
Although I’ve created countless shows and films in collaboration with others, the one piece of work I’ve done that was really ‘mine’
took me four years to make. I’d just got my teeth into being a documentary director and I want to do another big project before I have kids. And we do want to start a family soon after we get back. Emily James and Jeanie Finlay, whose work and approaches to production I love, are both mothers- so I know it can be done with style. But it’ll be a lot tougher. At this year’s Sheffield DocFest one of my heroes Molly Dineen confessed at a masterclass session that she felt like a fraud doing it, as since having children she’s hardly made any films. Ulp!
On arrival at our moorings in Victoria Park I started trying to plan an event where we’d screen the films we’ve made so far and invite people onto Lexia. I also had a few leads for people to interview. But just at that point, we found our boat battery had gone flat. The sunny days stopped, so we couldn’t even charge it. I lost my phone handset in the river and Sam’s was flat half the time. The amount of time it takes to get up, get clean, get fed, tidy up and get out of the boat, only to run around seeking power and signal to get anything done, became hugely frustrating.
We had a series of tearful conversations about whether we were doing the right thing. A series of people we contacted for the project cancelled our meetings or stopped returning calls. Others may well have returned calls and then given up- I had no way of knowing as half our comms were flat. Thinking we had to leave for France the following week, I started to panic. Claustrophobia plus lack of time was closing in. Sam at one point decided the answer was to jack in the journey, take the boat back to Bristol and just stay and make films in the UK. This appalled me because the journey part of it was his dream- without which I’d probably have stayed in the UK making films indefinitely. I felt awful that he’d abandon it so readily for my sake after planning it for so long. He took some persuading that I still wanted to go on the adventure- just not this fast and maybe not in this boat. The practical difficulties of living and staying clean and fed, plus the pressure of moving a certain distance every day, were getting in the way of actually doing anything else. I could only see that pressure increasing as we moved further from our friends and family.
I whinged about it on Facebook and my mates exhorted us to carry on, which gave me a bit of perspective and moral support. I seem to need this a bit more than Sam does.
After a couple of fraught days, we decided we could take some pressure off ourselves and still cross the Channel within the next month if we found a bigger boat to make life a bit easier.
We don’t have much space. Lexia is a very tiny boat. Very tiny. The main cabin area functions as our kitchen, living space, work space and kit charging station, and our bedroom. When we want to go to bed we pull out a layer of mattress and sheet of ply to make a double. When we get up, it goes back in to make a single to sit on.
We can sit up in bed but not suddenly. If we want to get into the prow or even into our respective cupboards behind the bed/kitchen area we have to curl up into a ball and swing our legs round while simultaneously hunching our backs, then push our legs out straight(ish) and we’re in a relatively normal sitting position. If we do then want to get into the prow, which functions both as a shed and- if we are meticulous about tidying everything away- as a sort of padded foetal reading pod- we have to plunge headfirst into it, roll sideways onto our backs, pull our legs in after us and then extend them to the other wall and start having a relaxing read.
Though I’ve written this in the plural, only one person can do any of this at once. Once one of us- let’s call them the Exile- is in the pod, or more usually sitting outside in the cockpit, the other has the living area to themselves. The drawback of this privileged position is that they then become the Fetch-Monkey.
With access to all the food, utensils, tools, books and all other useful objects, the Fetch-Monkey has to seek, find and provide everything the Exile needs. If they fail to do so, the Exile gets to climb into the living space and rummage around, generally messing up whatever the failed Fetch-Monkey was doing and getting both our legs all tangled up.
Doing an immense amount of bending and stretching to perform the most basic tasks is doing wonders for our core muscles. On reflection though, I’m not sure that living in a miniscule space is particularly applicable to any of the future scenarios we’re trying to prepare for. I guess if we did have to ‘bug out’ in our boat or hide in a cave or under some floorboards together it would be good to have a head start on the psychological and practical aspects of tiny spaces.
It reminds me of a conversation I had with Heath Bunting about his travels in India. He said he saw a whole family living in a tiny shack right next to a busy motorway. Three generations, with small kids and a grandmother who dressed beautifully every day. If anybody toddled a few inches to the right or left of the shelter they’d be killed by the stream of fast traffic. But somehow they were living and raising a family there. Heath said he was appalled at first, and then impressed. He said it forced him to reconsider his knee jerk reaction of concern and pity and acknowledge a resourcefulness and adaptability in that family that he’d do well to aspire to. When I think of that story I feel quite crap for whining about a lack of personal space.
In terms of UK society though, our situation is often either amusing or appalling to others. A neighbour at our current East London moorings who lives in a widebeam houseboat asked me the other day- quite unprompted- whether we were ‘acclimatising for the apocalypse’. He was quite tickled when he realised he’d hit the nail on the head.
But the space issue is starting to feel like the main obstacle we are dealing with and almost the least relevant to the things we are trying to learn.
That’s why, before we head across the Channel, we’re going to check out a boat in Southampton. It should offer nearly double the living space, twice the engine power and an unsinkable hull. I feel a bit guilty about betraying Lexia as she’s been our home for a month now.
We don’t have much stuff! Somewhat stereotypically I’m going to express this first through the medium of clothes.
I have 3 pairs of shoes with me, my scruffy boots, my scruffy sandals and some impractical silver sandals that I’m saving for the Med when my toes are brown enough to do them justice.
1 pair of jeans, 4 pairs of leggings, 2 tights, 7 socks, 3 hoodies, about 4 dresses, probably 10 tops including vests, t shirts, long sleeve tops, 10 pairs of pants, 3 jackets, 1 jumpsuit, 1 playsuit (with gold studs, I had to pack it, haven’t worn it yet but I TOTALLY will)… actually considering the size of our boat and technically what a person needs, that’s starting to sound like quite a lot. But compared to what I had in our house it’s nothing at all. It fits easily into a barrel 3ft high and 1.5ft in diameter. In a way it’s liberating, and along the Kennet and Avon I really didn’t care. But we’re in London now and I’d kind of like to dress up a wee bit or at least pull off the right kind of scruffy. Ah well.
I’ve always liked shopping, and struggled with it as I became aware of the environmental and human rights costs of new clothes. For extravagance I’d sometimes splash out on a nice bit of vintage, but just as often I’d sate my clothing lust with a cheap H&M frock. As much of my working life has been of the ‘creative but skint’ variety, I’ve made a virtue of necessity with lengthy browses in charity shops. Being part of the Invisible circus community also gave me access to the in-house Freeshop which was always full of loveliness. Freeshops in general are a brilliant idea, and I’m discovering after mainly encountering them in anarchist/alternative contexts that they often have them in marinas as well. Boats: where people see freedom in shedding their material possessions.
Having literally no space for new clothes has removed at a stroke this guilt-inducing compulsion. I could happily skip through shopping centres in the villages and towns we’ve visited and view the glittering displays in normal and charity shops alike as nothing more than dead weight. Which is of course what they usually became over time, in the back of my wardrobe in my old house. I just didn’t have to deal with the fact until much later.
When the rubber heel came off my beloved boots the other day I damn well nailed it back on. Unfortunately I had to use a lump hammer as Sam didn’t pack a normal hammer. More space saving, in this case misguided, I feel. So it wasn’t a precision job. But goddammit, the bugger is still hanging in there after 2 weeks.
The other ‘stuff’ I hoard is books. Sam is also guilty of this.
Our bookshelf however is miniscule and contains intrepid books like ‘Fishing Skills’, ‘Weather Forecasting for Sailors’ and a couple of true adventure memoirs including ‘The Unlikely Voyage of Jack DeCrow’ (highly recommended and awe inspiring) and ‘Two in a Boat’ (good and relevant to us in a close-to-the-bone way, but stretches the nautical/marriage/emotional weather analogies too far sometimes).
We also have some maps, some charts and the biggest book of all, the Dark Mountain Anthology #3(covered in a previous post). This book is far too beautiful to be on our tiny shelf and has already got its lovely bindings scratched.
And then there’s the mere 3,000 books on the digital eReader. Take that, ye who rail against civilisation! Oh, that’s us isn’t it?
Regarding other stuff, our film making kit is pretty minimal and small as well. However, there’s still enough of it that keeping it all charged has drained our solar charged battery to dangerously low levels and possibly damaged it. The reason we didn’t notice how low it was getting is- ha- the voltmeter battery was too low to give us an accurate reading. Ha.
With the washing up, having only 2 plates and 2 sets of cutlery is an utter dream. We’ve always been lazy with the washing up, but now if we don’t get round to it in the evening we have to do it before breakfast. And if you don’t tidy up regularly and leave too much stuff lying around you will definitely regret it within the hour.
Tiny spaces impose discipline. Sometimes it gives you a good feeling, like you’re in a tiny renegade Navy unit. Sometimes you just want to stretch out on a big pile of cushions, eat bonbons in your shiny new frock and leave the dishes til next Wednesday.
August 29th (sorry, we were offline for days and playing catch up a bit now)
My 31st birthday! Woooot! We woke in Devizes to torrential rain. I stayed cosy in the boat while Sam rummaged mysteriously in the aft lockers, and lobbed delight after delight through the open hatch onto the sleeping bag. Croissants! Card! Bacon! Flowers!
After birthday breakfast we were slightly at a loss. Just the two of us. Pissing down outside. What is there in Devizes anyway? I tried some token ukulele practice, but what next?
I’d wanted to go for a wild swim and a boozy picnic, but it was seriously grim.
We decided to go to Devizes Leisure Centre. Yes. But it wasn’t open to adults for another 4 hours so we went for another meal. When we staggered up, full and rather dirty from our grimy boat life, we discovered that ‘adult time’ at the pool was merely a guideline, and in fact every other attendee was under 12 and focused with fierce intensity on how long they could hold their breath while kicking our legs. Anyway, we got clean.
After that Sam bought me a haircut from a lady whose main concern on hearing of our voyage was whether I was able to bring my hairdryer. The answer is yes, but strictly for the purpose of space heating in the winter and not under any circumstances for my hair. I decided after this small luxury to test the theory that my hair will clean itself if left free of soap for three weeks or so. The hairdresser thought this was very brave.
We got back to the boat and ate another lovely meal, with the bottle of champagne I bought when I found out we’d really sold our house. A final inconclusive amble around Devizes- which is mid-carnival week but was apparently in a lull- and we headed out of town to find new moorings. As we settled into a hushed locale under oak and birch trees, we heard an epic carnival firework display kick off in Devizes. I think I preferred the moon on the water.
The day dawned with gorgeous sun and a fresh breeze. We set off with light hearts and I got my sewing kit out and started hemming the curtains I made the other day. If I don’t get them finished soon it’s only a matter of time before somebody peeks through the porthole and catches us getting spliced.
After about a mile, the engine choked and died. Oh balls. Never mind! The fuel line from the external tank has been acting up, so we just switched to the small internal tank. Start up again. Pootle along in the light, the breeze and the swishing reeds. Lush.
Oh. Engine dies again. Sam rips the top off and starts fiddling about. A small white plastic thing flies off into the water. Apparently it’s quite important.
Summoning my most extreme wifing skills, I jumped off the side and into some very cold water. Now, I’ve been swimming in English rivers and beaches for pleasure since I was a toddler. My mother threw me into the Channel on Boxing Day (for charity) when I was five. So when I say this was cold, I’m not just being your usual kind of pansy. I scooped up soft, gritty mud with my feet and then our dustpan, then dived and felt around until my hands were too numb to tell a rock from a stick from a small white plastic thing.
As I shuddered in the cabin, Sam flailed at the starter cord and managed another 200 yards or so before she died again. I alternated getting warm clothes on and filming his struggles for, y’know, the comedy scene they’ll make later. You have to pay for excellent wifing.
2 hours later a barge manned by two friendly chaps approached. “Need any help?”
Sam said “No, we’re fine, just checking the spark plugs” while I muttered “Tow. Tow?” under my breath. In the end I settled for saving his pride in front of the men and just chipping away at it gradually by muttering bitterly as I returned to sewing curtains. It was like a tiny grubby floating version of the 50s.
The engine fixing and sporadic flailing at the motor continued for another hour. Suddenly she roared into life. I wish I’d had the camera on because Sam’s face as he turned to me was a beautiful and enraging synthesis of blissful satisfaction and vindictive self righteousness. As revenge I made him turn it off again and start it for the camera.
We pulled up for the night at the Barge Inn, decorated with a detailed mural of crop circles, standing stones and various esoteric symbols. There are pictures of the most recent crop circles on a noticeboard on the wall, frequent paranormal tourists with a reverential air, and a long line of residential barges for whom it functions as a community hub.
As we hung out on Lexia, Sam recognised an old wooden barge belonging to his friend John. We’d last seen her when he first brought her into Bristol. Turns out John has been moored here awhile and now has a second barge which he’s opened as a shop, selling organic veg. He sorted us out with a lovely bag of food and carried on drinking. We’d arrived a couple of hours into what I’d call a major session, but who knows, perhaps it was just an ordinary Thursday night. Anyway we never quite caught up.
While out for (one of) my final cigarettes, I got talking to Jane, who lives on one of the barges. She talked about how living off-grid they probably wouldn’t notice a powercut, but what they do notice is the cold. Last winter being so rough, they’d all converged round the Barge Inn to huddle together, commiserate, and collaborate on digging and salting usable paths and sharing lifts out to nearby shops.
John drifted away and back again, asking about our plan as he’s done some sailing himself. Between repeated exhortations to take a different route across the Channel- apparently we should have left out of Bristol harbour to hug the coast around Cornwall- John asks about the project. When we tell him the name of it, he gives us a dose of Scottish plain speaking.
I never wrote the blog post I promised after last year’s Uncivilisation festival. It took some processing and was a much deeper, more emotional experience than I’d expected. In the end I left it too long and lost that strong emotional impact in favour of watching and cutting the footage- which largely emphasised the factual and editorial.
Better late than never, the results of last year’s footage have been edited by Vivi Stamatatos and are ready for viewing:
I think it’s a good snapshot of what the festival and accompanying movement is about, though it does leave out the strand of neo-primitivist art and spirituality, discussed below.
Now it’s 2 weeks after the 2012 festival and I’ve just read the third Dark Mountain anthology produced by the same team. The combination of the festival and the book provoked many responses in me, both positive and critical. It’s a long post, but if you like to read, you probably won’t mind.
Firstly, the tiny size of the festival is fantastic for meeting people and the urgency of the issues involved means you dive straight into deep conversations and debates with strangers at the drop of a hat. It’s totally fine to sit yourself down at a group of people and join in the conversation without introducing yourself. It’s dizzying at times- I know some people who live their lives like this but I’ve never been one of them. I’d like to be.
We did shoot footage at this year’s festival but rather than the sessions and organisers this consisted of interviews with two attendees. We met lots of other people, both wonderful and perturbing, and hopefully became more plugged into this network of people. All are in their way working diligently against denial.
In contrast to last year’s festival with its factual sessions on ‘collapsonomics’ and economic bubbles, there was little in the sessions that dealt with the likely shape and detail of the problems we might face. Instead there was a strand reflecting on the lessons of the 90s road protests and lots of spiritual and creative workshops focusing on reconnecting with ‘the wild’. I enjoyed those, and loved the tales of the road protests as I have friends who were there and speak of it as a huge watershed in their view of the world and in British activism. But I did find last year’s combination of debate on the empirical and political issues of today and the more spiritual ‘re-wilding’ very refreshing and well balanced. This year’s emphasis seemed a bit nebulous and fluffy. Apparently last year’s controversies caused some tension and forced people into ‘entrenched positions’ which was unhelpful. I was raised in an argumentative family, though, so I like that sort of thing. I’d rather thrash things out and then heal rifts with communal rituals afterwards than smother tensions before they arise.
As far as the art and music, again I was torn. There was some very beautiful art by Rima Staines with a wonderful wood-smoked and folk feel to it. Also a combination of paintings and poems called ‘The Fixing of Things’ that recalled the ripping apart and re-merging of natural structures and patterns- storms, wood-grain, stars, mud. The absolute highlight of the festival was the storytelling session by Martin Shaw, a broad bearded man like a dearly beloved uncle, full of exuberant love for his art. He made us laugh, sigh and cry tears of pain and healing joy with his vivid characters and tales that celebrated freedom, love and the wild in us all. Some great acoustic musicians played too, though the ‘Brythonic’ folk band Wod reminded me of the bit in the Mighty Boosh where Vince and Howard make an ill-judged effort to bring Medieval music to the hipsters of East London. The special circle dances they held a workshop to teach were strangely monotonous and the music very repetitive. Having seen my friend Red Vic orchestrate 1,000 very drunk people into a complex barn dance with no practice whatsoever, I felt more could have been achieved. If this is the future of music I will spend the rest of my life weeping for amps, synths and drum machines.
Having said that, there was a magical moment during the dance, when into the firelight stepped several masked figures- a deer man, a tall white figure with a curved beak and walking cane, and a woman with a face. The mask was just slightly more stylized than a ‘real’ face and expertly crafted. As the firelight flickered over it and showed grief, then innocence, then compassion, I experienced a deep shudder of unreality.
These moments that connect me to the sacred place of art and spectacle in ancient times, and remind me how little is needed in terms of resources to touch and transport an audience, are what grab and hold me about the Dark Mountain approach to art.
The third Dark Mountain anthology is a gorgeous piece of work, and features many of the visual artists and writers from the festival. It’s very well balanced in its combination of essays, poems, stories and colour prints. Its balance in terms of theory, reportage, dream, memory, beauty, hope, rage and sadness is stunningly well judged. It’s less well balanced in its inclusiveness.
I’ve heard women attending the festival complain of its macho bias before, and I’d previously shelved those concerns because the movement was so inspiring to me in other ways. Also because although it was chiefly young white men running it, they seemed like awfully nice and intelligent men with great ideas and lots of talent. I do reach a point with my feminism that it can stop me from enjoying the plethora of wonderful things that men make and do because I’m always screaming inside ‘where are the women?’ And that gets very tiring. So I switch it off. I have to do this quite often to enjoy some of my favourite art. I’m used to it.
But after reading several stories in which troubled men find a deeper connection to woodland spirits, dead badgers and mountainsides than their female partners, I started to feel uneasy. Though a few great women writers are featured in the anthology, a theme emerged through several of the fiction pieces of a shadowy female figure smelling of chemical perfumes who represents ‘normality’, ‘civilisation’, numb consumer comfort and everything Dark Mountain stands against. The male protagonist rails against, preaches to or simply deserts this woman without a word, to embrace the wild alone.
If you’ve read Alex Scarrow’s ‘Last Light’ books you’ll know they’re basically pulp horror, dystopian sci fi with a Peak Oil twist. At the start of the first book the protagonist’s wife is about to leave him because he talks too much about Peak Oil and embarrasses her at dinner parties. By the end of the novel the Peak Oil crash has decimated the world she knew and after a tooth and nail struggle across feral England she’s ready to fall back into his arms, wailing apologies. You get the impression this is a private fantasy of Scarrow’s and that possibly Mrs Scarrow is no longer returning his calls. (To be fair though, the second part involves a renewables-powered matriarchy on an oil rig run by the same woman after her husband sacrifices himself for his family in a hand to hand battle. Great stuff if you like that sort of thing).
The Peak Oil forums Sam joined in 2008 are full of men who’ve become geeks on the subject complaining about their wives’ stubborn refusal to uproot their lives. One of the men we interviewed at the festival said his recent marriage breakup was partly caused by his obsession with preparing for the breakdown of civilisation. He’s keeping a place for her at the rural ‘doomstead’ he’s building, in case she ever needs it.
All this is just to say that this field of interest is, like many others, very male dominated. And that can result in the Dark Mountaineers and friends seeing themselves as lonely pioneers, out on the clifftop leading the way, dragging us recalcitrant girls along behind, like as not whining that there’s no power for our hairdryers. Though there is much that is compassionate and good in this movement, this posturing should be taken with a large pinch of salt.
There is also a fetishisation of physical labour and the toughness of withstanding the elements. I’d agree that as more of us need to grow food, and ecological conditions become more erratic, we will all need to become reacquainted with the elements and stretch the capacities of our own bodies. We do need to get in touch with the ecology that we rely on in every possible way. Our alienation from it has caused such irreversible devastation. In that case though, where does the Dark Mountain movement begin to address how we take care of the growing elderly population, and others who are unable to take on this kind of physical challenge? While the Dark Mountaineers are encountering stags in the wilderness, who will look after their elderly mums or disabled children? Or maybe that won’t be such a problem. A few attendees at the festival spoke with casual bluster of ‘die-offs’, and how the key to survival will lie in managing to sit those out until it’s safe to emerge and reconnect with the resourceful few who made it. One man in his 70s joked nervously about ‘killing off all the oldies’ for fuel. Ha ha.
My friend Zoe Young led a session called ‘Bright Valleys’ at last year’s Uncivilisation that I was too involved in to shoot properly. I filmed some of it but it was so full of emotion and deep personal moments that it seemed wrong to use the footage (at least just yet)- especially as there was nobody to film me. When it was my time to share my feelings of fear, shame and grief over the impending loss of the ways of life I know and my part in the damage done, I sobbed my heart out.
Part of Zoe’s point in this session was that come what may in the outside world, the essentials of home and hearth remain the same. The food must be prepared, the fire lit, the children cared for, friendships and loves nurtured. Globally and historically the bulk of this work has fallen to women, and changes less between eras than the range of economically viable careers. From her work on witchhunts among tribal peoples, Zoe said that often when hard times come, the men find it harder to cope because their identity is bound up in going out into the world to provide. This could apply equally to career women whose identities are not also rooted in something more durable. When the particular role they play loses its relevance, they can enter a tailspin of panic and violence.
Women are also often scapegoated in hard times, bearing the brunt of poverty in the developing world, and the harsh end of the cuts in the UK. Witchhunts are not just for so called ‘primitive’ societies. So the alienated way women are portrayed in several of the stories in DM3, and in many of the other ‘survivalist’ and ‘collapse’ narratives out there is a source of disquiet to me. I missed Zoe’s session at this year’s festival as I felt it helped to process and allay the fear some of the other sessions stirred up.
The stated purpose of Dark Mountain’s third anthology is the ‘search for a home’. A couple of the Uncivilisation sessions also touched on founder Paul Kingsnorth’s belief that a strong ‘connection to place’ and ‘belonging to a landscape’ is a good way to a simpler life. The word ‘indigenous’ was used, which sparked off quite a discussion, as nobody wanted to sound like a BNP member. It was meant in the sense of being connected to the land and invested in its well being as much as your own- wherever you choose to make your home. But it’s not hard to see how those ideas could (and do) inform an exclusionary, fascistic narrative in other contexts. In many of the pieces in DM3 and the Unciv sessions, I got an elusive sense of where a home beyond collapse might be found, for me, for Sam and for our family. In the stories of the lonely men and their woodland spirits, though I found beauty, I found no home for me.
These seeds of disquiet don’t extend to a rejection of the group/movement/idea. It’s still the best place to share my much greater disquiet over where our culture is headed and how we might deal with it- on both practical and creative levels. As last year’s interview with the founders makes clear, it’s an ongoing search for meaning and mythologies, not a set of statements or imperatives. I’d recommend seeking out the books and attending next year’s festival. It’s always an eye opener, and the conversations, singing and sharing around the fire are worth the trip on their own.
We slept all night with the hatch open, safe in the knowledge that unless the rain goes really sideways the new extension will keep us dry. It’s surprisingly warm inside Lexia. We missed a teary farewell with Lucy as she ran off in a panic first thing, having forgotten the time of her motorbike test. However, we may get another chance as Dave suggested over coffee that we leave Lexia here over the weekend. Sam booked a hire car from Bath to take us to Uncivilisation festival in Hampshire later today, and we’ll probably make a pitstop in my hometown of Portsmouth and see my best friend El before we get back to Lexia on Tuesday and carry on up the river.
I keep wondering whether we are cheating to nip back and forth and hire cars and so forth, but then I remember we haven’t actually set any ‘rules’ for this trip. We’re assuming that with the mode of travel and the skills and experiences we’ll be seeking out we will be facing quite enough challenges to be going on with.
The Toilet Challenge (look away if this is Too Much Information)
Our toilet is a bucket. With an optional seat and lid, and a handle with a rope tied to it. We do not use it for solids. We have a folding army spade for those, though so far we’ve depended on pubs and the facilities at Dave and Lucy’s moorings. There’s a tiny indoor space in the prow with a sliding door in front of it. Instead of paper we use water, and then slosh out the bucket in the river or woods. The romantic mystique we have (obviously) always preserved in our 12 year relationship is in tatters. Ah well.
The Work Challenge
Sam has agreed on a trial basis to remain a web administrator for one day a week while we travel. Today is the first day he is trying it out. It’s going surprisingly well just from Sam’s tethered phone connection, though we did have a couple of internet timeouts, and my jubilant Facebooking as I responded to our friends ‘bon voyage’ messages had to be curtailed. Still, it looks possible, which will mean we have a bit of income trickling in as we go. We’re powering the tech from solar panels, though we’ll need to depend on internet cafes quite often too. Sam’s work and this project will often tether us to the structures we are trying to learn independence from. We’ll just have to deal with it and remain aware of it.
The next post will be on Uncivilisation Festival, happening 19-21 August at the East Meon Sustainability Centre. We’ll shortly upload Vivi Mimola’s edit of last year’s event which was such an inspiration to us. We’ll write our thoughts on this year’s events. It’s a great place to meet and speak with people who think differently. People who no longer expect nor want another chapter in the growth and prosperity story we’ve been telling ourselves for far too long.
August 16th: We awoke at Netham Lock, my hand and both our heads throbbing. The Lock keeper was surprised to see us surface as he’d noticed the two large barrels of cider and the box of wine from the launch lying in the stern. He told us the river was so high that he’d only open the lock once today, and that was in 20 minutes. We groggily checked our phones for messages. Turns out we’d left a few loose ends on shore, chiefly several hard drives had to go to their rightful owner, but not before I grabbed some files from them. Isobel, who had them is also an experienced nurse so I bundled myself off the boat and waited forlornly by Feeder Road until she picked me up. She told me it could probably do with stitches but it wasn’t essential if I didn’t mind a scar, and I got on with transferring video files.
Meanwhile Sam forged ahead into the seething waters of the Avon.
To Keynsham! (The adventure of it all…)
We met there later, moored by Dra’Azon- the houseboat where our old friends Lucy and Dave live. Dave kept up a stream of coffee and conversation while we pottered about, fixing up some of the things we hadn’t had time for. I crawled upside down into the deepest places of the hull, feeding wires through tiny holes for the solar panel rig, while Sam inflated and attached our ‘extension’. This little orange number will double as the roof and rollcage to our lifeboat in the event we ever need to use it.
In the evening Lucy arrived with fresh veg from the community gardens she works in and cooked us stew, potatoes and crumble from the bounty. Boat life is good so far.
We were recently featured in the Daily Mail, in an article that focused largely on our stated destination of Greece. The Mail did not contact us, and based their article on what the Bristol Evening Post wrote a few days before. Despite repeatedly telling the Post that the project was not about Greece specifically but about the whole of Europe and individuals and groups within it and our journey between them, the Post and subsequently the Mail focused almost totally on Greece.
While they got a few things right (our ages, our names, the skills we want to learn, a few of our motivations for the project) the article/s gave the impression that we expect Greece to be either a) a dystopian Mad Max nightmare or b) some sort of foraging self sufficient wonderland of primitive skills.
I have been to Greece several times, have a few friends there, and am well aware that neither of these is the truth about Greece. While we are very interested in various strategies that certain people in Greece may be using to deal with the impact of the economic problems there (because our bet is that similar problems are on the way for us), we’re aware that the article gives completely the wrong impression about what we expect Greece to be like. Likewise, our hometown of Bristol is a normal British city with large areas given over to consumerism and throwaway culture, but within it are many projects and people preparing for a very different future.
The Mail will never apologise to you, as it has never apologised to anybody for its crass generalisations about other nations, so please accept this apology from us.
All the best to you in dealing with the challenges of this collapsing age.
At 6pm we arrived at the Benjamin Perry Scout Hut and started setting up. People were arriving, clustering round the dock and venturing along the wobbly jetty to marvel at Lexia, bobbing there covered in fluttering bunting. Our parents arrived, and to my great delight, all my Mum’s brothers and sisters, wearing huge smiles. We screened the roughcuts of our current crop of films, as one by one the pink-clad Ambling Band arrived in full pirate swing. Turns out a lot of them are boaters too. The Euphonium player in particular had a lot of piercing questions about our route. As soon as they kicked up their brassy party sound all the stress melted away. We danced. Suddenly it was 10pm. People started asking if we were really leaving. We probably were. It all seemed both too soon and just right. We ran a gauntlet of warm hugs and I found myself on the jetty with a bottle of Champagne in my hand and my nearest and dearest lining the shore. Sam was at the stern, revving the engine. I brought the bottle down on the prow. It bounced off. Embarassing. I raised it high and belted the metal point on the prow. An explosion of booze, glass and dim pain flew over my hand. I leapt on board to cheers and flashbulbs, pulling the prow line after me. As we pulled away, I sucked and licked blood from a deep slash on my right knuckle, hoping nobody would see. Within 5 minutes, we were sliding through the dark, quiet waters of the Harbour. Our exhilaration floated up into the night air, bounced off the underside of low bridges with our laughter. We’ve been talking about this voyage for 4 years. We are finally moving.
The day jolted me awake in Brislington at our friend Isobel’s house. I’d had 3.5 hours of sleep. The previous night, I’d had words to write, video to edit and files to transfer. I’d also had hours of deep chats with Isobel, a friend who is so constant and so ready to offer help and company in the happiest and darkest times that it’s more accurate to say she is family. And at the end of the night I just had to spend one last hour luxuriating in a warm, soft bed, on a solid floor, and all alone with a book.
I regretted all that luxury as I stumbled out of the house, but by the time I reached the boat laden with bags and found Sam nestled in a sleeping bag with the hatch open, excitement began to take hold. I woke him up and we spruced ourselves up in time for a sheepish BBC Bristol radio reporter to arrive with a piece of kit that refused to work. After missing our live morning slot he jumped into Lexia to perch between us and do an interview, focusing mostly on how small she is. At the end he asked if there was anything else to say and I launched into a lengthy treatise on the motivations of our trip, including the economy, climate change and peak oil. It became a 5 second news item, 1:28:24 here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/player/p00whzjq Ah well, he tried!
After that the heavens opened and we sat staring at the walls, less than a foot from our faces. Trying to imagine this as our actual home. By the time we’d had two pots of coffee it all seemed possible, and when the rain slacked off we headed off for a crazy dash around Bristol- picking up parcels, dropping off the final remnants of our stuff, paying final bills, taking and making calls. At 4pm I met two friends at the Watershed and we put the final touches to the edits for the launch.
Now time for… The Launch Party!
I have written before about why I find sailboats an interesting preparation for the energy & ecological crisis we are facing. These thoughts are partly inspired by Orlov’s writings
A couple of years ago I put in a £500 ebay bid on a 22ft Junk rigged boat, at the time I didn’t really expect to win it but I did. So over the last couple of years I have been slowly doing the boat up whilst learning to sail in the Bristol channel.
Whilst spending time on the boat, enjoying the feeling of sailing and traveling without fossil fuels, feeling the awesome power of the seas, I have also been musing on boats as a place to live.
Naomi and I were becoming settled. We had a mortgage (from the French for ‘death grip’), we are at the stage of life where we are getting serious about having children. It seemed that once we had children we would become even more entrenched in our dayjob/mortaged existence. We would watch as the housing crash continues to accelerate towards something resembling sensible pricing, trapped in an urban house and lifestyle that left us ill prepared for the future we face.
Whilst learning to sail, and continuing with this office based life a seed of an idea to go traveling has germinated. Whilst a boat barely bigger than a dinghy might seem like a poor choice for a potentially dangerous trip across the seas, the more we talked the more sense it (seemed to!) make. Living in such a small space would give us the opportunity to really scale back on the ‘things’ which clutter our daily lives and at the same time exert such a drain on the earth’s precious resources. It would be easier to heat, and we could just about row the thing when there is no wind, or we are on inland waters.
The more we talked, the less sense living in a crowded city and manipulating and moving data for a living made.
At the same time we are keen to explore a more land based lifestyle, I love growing food and in the longer term would like to look for a land based community to settle in. It may seem counter intuitive therefore to set out as far as you can from the land into the seas!
But as we reach peak everything the opportunities to travel and explore are likely to reduce as we become poorer and have to work harder to keep ourselves fed and clothed. Moving into a community is a massive commitment and we are not sure what balance of collectivism vs personal autonomy will suit us.
It seemed like we should visit a good number of people who are trying to build resilient communities to see what land based lifestyles would suit us. Should we do Geese? Mushroom growing? Orchards? what kind of production would suit us? In what part of the country or world should we live?
If we were going to explore the myriad possibilities, it seemed like the time to do it was now. To have a period of rootlessness of having no strong connection to place is a luxury for the good times. At the same time the sea is one of the last wilderness spaces, a place where we will acutely feel our own insignificance and the power of nature, to go out and feel that, to feel that fear is enticing.
Gradually a plan to travel south through Europe on our tiny boat has emerged, as we go we hope to find communities and people who can inspire and teach us a more resilient life. Once we reach the Mediterranean next spring we shall try and become proper sailors, living at anchor and at the margins as much as we can to keep costs down.
The action of rowing, sailing and moving around the boat will improve our fitness, and by trying to step outside of the Mortgage/ rent paridigm we hope to reduce our expenses and reliance on ‘mainstream work’.
Living in such a small space will reduce our energy requirements, we hope to rely on wood/charcoal for heating and solar for electrical power. We hope to fish and forage as we go and acquire practical skills we are lacking.
We will attempt to live on a budget of £100 a week as we go, when we have spent this we will row instead of motor, reuse rather than buy, forage rather than shop. We will make exceptions to this only for reasons of safety, stocking up on fuel for a long passage, or a marina in a storm for example.
We plan to visit Spain and ultimately get to Greece and to see first hand what dealing with a collapsed economy is really like. From the raft dwellers on the Canal du Midi, barter economies on the Greek islands to the reclusive mountain dwelling spanish anarchists, we hope to explore and document peoples responses to the new paradigm of industrial contraction and the survival strategies people are developing.
We hope to learn new skills from the people we meet and become stronger more resliant people, we hope that in some small way our project and adventure will spark some conversations about resiliance and consumerism that we need to have as a society.
Naomi is a filmmaker and we will be making a series of short films for the web as we go, based around the characters and communities who we meet and the skills we learn.
Our route will take us through Wiltshire and up the Kennet and Avon canal towards London over the next few weeks. We are particularly keen to make contact now with people along this first stretch who might be able to show us a skill, offer some local knowlege of plants, teach us to make charcoal or offer an old story.
We will then be heading across the channel and down through the centre of France, through Paris, and down the canals to the Rhone. If you have any contacts for interesting people or places we should visit on this route it would be great to hear them.
Regarding the films we can of course offer as much privacy as people wish, not everyone will want to be filmed, not everyone will want to disclose their location or name and we fully respect that. We are not on a commission from anybody to ‘get a good story’, we are completely independent and interested in telling your stories and sharing your skills with the world in the way and to the extent that you are comfortable with. If you don’t want to be filmed, we still want to learn from you for our family’s future, so please do get in touch.
In the past week we’ve sent our stuff to our mums’ attics, given it out for free via facebook, the wondrous Free Shop and the Freeconomy website, and finally for the worst dregs, lugged it to the tip. We’ve exchanged contracts on our house, moved out of it and into a friend’s spare room, filmed the process as best we could and started the final process of packing the boat.
Other highlights have included the final 2 days at my office job, a late night edit session on the broadcast cut of my first feature, several consultations with various other editors about the short docs for this project and a rummage through the Invisible Circus costume room for a King and Queen outfit for Boomtown festival this weekend. (Why are we performing at a festival when we have so much to do and only a week to prepare? Because we felt like having a proper dance and smiling a lot before our eyeballs fall out from stress).
This isn’t fun yet. In fact we’re both exhausted and getting rather snappy. But as the boat fills with impressively useful and intrepid objects (Survival suits! Meths stove! Gaffer tape! Rope!) and the fripperies and flab accumulated over 10 years in a comfy Bristol home (Beanbags! Hair wax! Unworn high heels!) fall away from our lives, it is all getting rather exciting.
You are invited to join us for the Launch:
Weds 15th August between 6-11pm Naomi Smyth and Sam Rossiter will launch their tiny boat from the Benjamin Perry Boathouse on Phoenix Wharf, BS1 6SR.
We’re presenting some of the films and answering questions about the project at 7pm sharp, and from 8-9 The Pink and glorious Ambling Band will be playing. After that, Booze! And the exciting launch moment itself at around 10pm.
Can I get a Woohooo!
Sam: ‘So what is this story? Why are we doing this? Apart from because it’s a brilliant adventure. Why don’t we just stay home and join our local Transition group or CSA farm? ’
Naomi: ‘It’s an adventure story. It’s like Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam are happy in the Shire. It’s safe there, but they know it won’t always be safe. So they go out into danger*, they immerse themselves in it and explore its heart, and when they come back the danger has come to the Shire and they know what to do about it’
* in this case danger could mean a number of things- the big looming dangers of collapse or just the feelings of danger people experience when we’re way outside our comfort zone.
The more I research, discuss and think about issues of resilience for the future, the more I reinforce my belief in local, community solutions. Governments and corporations are massively powerful, and as ordinary citizens, our influence on their decisions is kept as much at arms length as possible. Their structures for doing that can be temporarily disrupted by direct action, or we can join our voice to pressure groups and organisations who will lobby for us through the ‘proper channels’. But for me, taking power should always also mean taking responsibility, and that is so much more manageable when the groups are small and the problems they are trying to solve are close to home.
I am a big fan of the Transition movement for that reason. It’s about people relearning the skills to provide themselves with food and necessities locally, and in the process rebuilding the connections and interdependencies many of us have lost with our local community.
The internet provides community of sorts, but it can only go so far. I have met and befriended like-minded people all over the world, and it’s great. But when it comes to life’s real necessities- food, water, security- jawing on Twitter might help us blow off steam or spread the word but the person next door is where it’s at. And that person may not be ‘like-minded’ at all. It might take some work to build a relationship with that person, far beyond ‘liking’ the same vaguely subversive webpage and having the same snarky sense of humour in comments threads. This kind of work you have to do in person, with eye contact, cups of tea and sometimes heavy lifting.
The real-life community I’m most a part of is The Invisible Circus, a collective of artists, performers and makers and the subject of my first feature doc. It started out with an effort to be non-heirarchical and my film chronicles, among other things, the ways in which that succeeds and fails. Now it is run more centrally by a much smaller group, but the wider community around it is made up of individuals who share their resources and help each other out. Professionally the group comes together to collaborate for creative processes and in terms of overall strategy the door is always open, both for input and people who want to take on the work. I’m happy with this and I don’t see it as a failure of self-organisation because it’s small enough. I know that the people who have power are also those who take the most responsibility, and we all know each other’s faces, names and hearts. That’s my kind of anarchy: not horizontal consensus with the entire group consulted on every point whether they show up to do the work or not, but manageable hierarchy and respect and autonomy for those who take responsibility. It’s only possible on a small scale, and it’s a damn sight easier when everybody is physically near.
So I definitely understand the argument of several friends who’ve questioned our strategy of heading out, just the two of us, on a tiny cramped boat, to other countries and other communities. In a way we are removing and isolating ourselves from the communities we hope to be a part of, that we’ll depend on and contribute to in the long term. But it’s temporary. We’re not saying the two of us on a boat can be entirely self-sufficient. We’re on an adventure to learn how others do it, and bring back those ideas skills and solutions- from the madcap to the basic and pragmatic. We’ll bring them in person to the folks back home on our return, but also to your community, both as we pass through and second hand via you and the magical interwebs. If you see something on our travels that inspires you, go next door, invite them for a cup of tea and see what you can do together.
“Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
We won the pot at the third ever Bristol Spoonfed! Some great projects presented their ideas, including Stand and Stare’s show Guild of Cheesemakers who need to get to Edinburgh this August, an idea for a beautiful outdoor game presented by the lovely Jo Lansdowne with the aid of some charismatic turnips, and Mr Ydir who wants to award the brilliant people in life with an award to say ‘You’re doing it Right’. These were just my favourites but there were many more, so it was a great privilege and a surprise to get the vote and win the pot of £185. I was so knocked out I nearly forgot to thank The Collect who organised the event, and completely forgot to mention their lovely sponsors who provided the amazing bread, soup, cake and venue. For more info on SpoonFed for anybody who needs a small grant to get their project started, and to see what the 7 other great projects were on the night, visit: http://www.thecollect.org/projects/spoon-fed-no-3–june-24th/
We’ll be launching a bigger crowdfunding campaign via IndieGoGo very soon, so it was a great boost for us to see our first efforts bear fruit. We’ll be spending the cash on a great little waterproof HD camera so we can shoot hands free and sail at the same time, and bring you all the drama of the open seas.
Thanks again to The Collect and everybody who came down, whether you voted for us or not. All the best of luck with your projects and thanks for a brilliant evening. I leave you with our faces looking decidedly chuffed and clutching our newly won funds:
So exciting day today, we’re going to fetch Lexia from the estuary and bring her into Bristol harbour- hopefully for the last time before we set off. She’s in pretty good shape although a couple of the portholes are leaky. So given the torrential rain of the past few weeks we may have to mop up a bit. We’re not the best at early Saturday mornings and have already had a fight about who should boil the breakfast eggs but time and tide wait for no squabbling couple.
And we’re still in Bristol. Clematis is growing high around the ‘For Sale’ sign leaning plaintively out from our front wall. Many times over the past year as tiny numbers of people viewed the house, and even fewer made what seemed to us miserly offers, strung us along and then lost interest, I wondered if we had left it too late to escape our mortgage and the constant scramble to make the payments. Maybe the climate of economic unease infecting the property market would leave us flogging it for a pittance and still with nothing to invest in a new way of life on the high seas. I know, right? Get out the tiny violins.
It wouldn’t have been the end of the world, or TEOTWAWKI as those ever-chirpy peak oil geeks have it, but it could have meant putting off the voyage for another year, as the longer we leave it the less time we’ll have to get far enough South before the real cold hits.
BUT! (touching wood with every available bit of skin surface for a moment) finally we’ve got through the survey stage and they still seem to want to actually live there, as opposed to play some insane game of ‘chicken’ involving thousands of pounds and a series of awful estate agents.
So it’s no surrender for setting off this year.
This week I’m at Sheffield Docfest meeting with many luminaries of the documentary, independent distribution and cross-platform worlds, in the hopes of getting this project a little further into the waters of adventure. We’ve been shooting plenty of new stuff and planning even more, all in the pipeline. Meanwhile, here’s our current trailer.
This Friday, 1pm at Pervasive Media Studios in The Watershed, we’re presenting a Lunchtime talk on How to Survive the Future: http://www.pmstudio.co.uk/events/fri-20042012-100pm
The title is ‘Building international engagement with a transmedia documentary project’.
Recently the project has developed in leaps and bounds (though that’s not yet apparent from this website!) and largely through engaged, intelligent feedback from professionals and potential audience members. The audience engagement is a vital part of what we need to do, but we’re hoping the people there will have all kinds of valuable feedback on all aspects of the idea.
The talk is partly to let Bristol know what we’re up to, but also to get feedback and input from people. If you can think of anybody who’d be good to get along and who’d be interested, please forward them this link and/or put us in touch. And I hope to see some of you there!
Today was meant to be about chasing late invoices (grrr) and Tweeting and emailing people with venues that might want to show my first film (www.invisiblecircusfilm.com). But I was pulled up short by the #ClimateReality online stream which is happening for the next 24 hours. Another Al Gore brainchild, it takes each hour in a different country, and covers the real-world effects of climate change in that place. Right now (10.31am) it’s the first hour in Canberra, Australia. A well-informed and impassioned woman has just finished a presentation encouraging people to stand up and speak up about the reality of climate change in the face of denial. She’s about to introduce the former Australian director for the WWF.
It reminded me that this is the stuff I really think is the most important to think, write and create work about. It also raises questions and issues for me. The thrust of this campaign is all about being positive and campaigning for changes in the law, contraints on the fossil fuel industry and on big business, but also- as the WWF guy has done- working with the World Bank to ‘put a price on pollution’ and boost renewable energy.
I’m torn here, because the basic ‘anti-denial, pro-reality’ message is completely vital, and of course we need more renewable energy urgently. However, when speaking on solutions the campaign seems to presuppose working within capitalism and utilising market forces to ameliorate the effects of climate change. There’s not much discussion in the campaign material of how an economic system based on constant ‘growth’ and expansion is basically unsuitable for a planet with dwindling natural resources. Not to mention, these institutions may not exist in the same way or have the same priorities after a large scale economic collapse.
I don’t have much faith in a set of solutions that doesn’t deal with that. It’s not just because of ideological problems with the injustices of capitalism, I actually see it as a mathematical issue. So much clean water, so much fertile soil, so much fuel, so many thousand year old trees- all being decimated by rampant consumption at an insane rate, fuelled by an economic system in the process of eating itself. Capitalism has to grow or it dies. And it needs cheap raw materials to grow. Where are they going to come from? Haven’t we largely pissed them away? Is the Earth making any more oil, gold, uranium, coal, gas, water… not a fraction as fast as we’re consuming them. Even if there is lots left of a particular resource, it doesn’t change the fact that using it and using it on an industrial scale is going to lead inexorably to depletion. Errr…duh? And what other way of using resources can capitalism really offer us? Who is going to make a buck out of leaving it for the next generation?
My next post is going to be about Uncivilisation, which happened in Hampshire about a month ago. It was founded by a pair of writers, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, who had both been green campaigners for years. I interviewed them both at the end of the festival, and am in the process of editing the interview and some of the other footage I got into an ‘Uncivilisation’ clip. It was a fascinating weekend, a mixture of practical post-collapse skill workshops, scary debates on the potential effects of collapse, sharing of personal fears and emotions, and writing workshops about the ‘narratives’ that have led our culture to this place, and the new less destructive ones we could create for the future.
Everybody I met there said that they would need a week or so to process what they saw and heard at the festival. I thought I’d be able to blog about it about a week later but my Bristol life of theatre and online life of promoting my first film took over yet again and wiped the lessons of #unciv11 from my mind for a while. My issues with #Climatereality reminded me. The talk of working with the World Bank, lobbying politicians, looking eagerly forward to electric cars, reminded me of all those ‘narratives’, those myths, we discussed at #unciv11.
The myth that man is above nature and could and should control it.
The myth that we deserve the things we want, and can have them without consequence- for example, electric cars, and even more wealth creation through renewable energy.
Above all, the myth of progress- that our story as a species is one of constant improvement and betterment, that all of us are part of a struggle for some final utopian pinnacle in the future. Rather than all of us inhabiting the present moment on a finite planet as we always have.
More on #unciv11 soon, I promise. Meanwhile, tune in to #Climatereality and send the link to any deniers you know. They’re now onto Korea and the effects they are experiencing there- though the translator is having some problems. It’s good to spread the word about the reality of climate change. Just lets not forget that even the terms of the ‘reality’ they’re discussing is full of harmful myths about humanity’s place in the world and the best ways forward.
Just had some interesting discussions with Sam about his ‘new scheme’ of buying a place in the country instead of in Bristol. Not that we can buy anywhere as yet, with the ‘For Sale’ sign growing mildew in the front garden… but the gist of the idea is that we buy somewhere less likely to be beset by riots and looting in the event of increasing resource scarcity. Our original plan was Greenbank, Easton where I imagined living in a strong community of friends old and new, and our kid/s playing in the cemetery over the pedestrianised road. We discovered this morning that both the houses we wanted to buy on Greenbank road have gone, which is a real blow- but I was still thinking of that area as our future family home.
Sam painted a picture of that area in a few years’ time under siege from hungry people, no longer heading for retail outlets but ripping up veg patches and looking for money and valuables in people’s houses. A house we no longer want to live in but definitely can’t sell. Fleeing from said area without assets, essentially homeless… no different to anyone renting or homeless already, and without the strength in numbers probably less well off than those living in a squat community or in trucks.
The ‘new scheme’ consists of buying in a rural area where food growing land is abundant, population is sparser and reliance on scavenging and stealing is therefore reduced. Cornwall maybe. Where we don’t know anybody and have no work contacts and there’s currently hardly any infrastructure unless you’re going to drive for miles.
Beyond our personal situation this raises another question- is it easier to create a local food economy and basic infrastructure somewhere rural and sparsely populated, where it’s dwindled in favour of out of town Tesco etc, or in an urban area where it never existed but there are a lot of people in close proximity who might be willing to help?
Anyway, the initial idea was to buy somewhere there, and rent it out while we live in Bristol. I am not sure that would work- I suspect being an absentee landlord is a lot more trouble than it seems on paper- and on an emotional level hate the idea of hedging our bets like that, never fully committing to either community, and when things get too tough where we live evicting someone from our rural place and implanting ourselves there while Bristol burns. We just got finished watching the great David Simon series ‘Treme’ about post-Katrina New Orleans, and everybody struggling to carry on with their lives and rebuild. All those guys want is for everybody else to come back and help them sort it out. It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking series so watch it if you can. I’ve probably allowed it to cloud my judgment somewhat…
I also took issue with the subversive glee Sam takes in informing me of each new twist in his apocalyptic thought processes. I feel like he really gets something from watching me struggle with each new development, and I start to feel like maybe it’s not always about survival- that some of it is about one-upmanship and keeping a few steps ahead of ‘the wife’. Uncharacteristically he referred to me as ‘the wife’ on his Peak Oil forum and asked the other (overwhelmingly male) survivalists for advice on how he could ‘get round the wife’ and execute his plan- I felt like it was the bloody 50′s again and I should maybe be building him a shed to hide in from ‘the wife’, whoever she is supposed to be…
That disturbs me for a number of reasons. Firstly because it really brings home how impossible it is to unpack your motivations in life with any clarity. People keep telling me ‘with all this worrying and talking about ‘the end of the world’, you’ll bring it on!’ And of course ‘confidence’ has always been a huge factor in the stability of the markets. Our feelings and thoughts do create our reality in countless ways. So if I am thought of as a pampered obstacle, resistant to change, attached to material things, that Sam has to drag kicking and screaming into a scary world of deprivation and hard knocks- and if that is a view of me and himself that is important to Sam- maybe stemming from material differences in how we grew up- then of course the plan has to keep changing and the imagined future has to get darker and darker as I reluctantly adapt to each new phase. And then we’re veering into tinfoil hat territory. We’d be better off solving that kind of problem in couples counselling than in an allotment or on a sailboat.
Those dark thoughts aside, the economic crash is a reality. So is climate change. So is Peak Oil. We need to be able to look at those things with as few personal distortions as possible. And here’s another thing that bothers me. In the light of those things, in a world where we can rely less and less on petroleum and the National Grid to do our heavy lifting, are we headed into a future where the gains of feminism are drastically reduced? Where might equals right again, and all your post-feminist posturing about how ‘liberated’ your vajazzle makes you feel will seem ludicrous compared with a real regression to the bad old days. How do we urban arts and media ladies with our vintage hairdos and humorous kitsch jewellery fancy being relegated to the home sphere again cos our upper body strength doesn’t cut it in the brave new world? Time to start working out, ladies… see you at aerial rope class?
Tuesday 9th August 2011
Morning! The Future just got a little closer to the present, with riots spreading across London and popping up in Liverpool, Birmingham and even a teeny one in Bristol. As the helicopters buzzed over our neighbourhood last night I remarked to Sam that I couldn’t see Bristol sitting round feeling left out for long.. and sure enough when we awoke a few hundred younguns had been setting things ablaze in the night.
The FTSE has responded accordingly with a drop of 3.4% this morning. Markets everywhere continue their freefall. What with all these riots going on, already bigger and nastier than those in the 80′s, I can’t imagine it will be long before people really wake up to the fact that things are changing irrevocably in our previously snug and stable Western democracies. Hopefully there are enough still in denial to buy our bloody house! Feels more like an albatross every day.
Had a bit of a virus + too much work meltdown late last week and headed to an old water mill shared by about 30 people in my Mum’s family. My folks were there with their Baby Boomer friends, many of whom have known me since the cradle. For the past few years I’ve been talking about this project with increasing clarity (I can be a slow burner when it comes to my work…but watch out when I get going!) and have been met by anything from amused and patronising put-downs to irritation at the suggestion that ‘the system’ many of them jettisoned their hippy principles to join might ultimately not be as strong as it seemed. This weekend though, avid attention, spooked eyes and emphatic nods all round. When I told them Sam had stayed home to help organise ‘Reclaim The Fields’ in order to inspire more people to grow food on spare land- whether squatted or negotiated, again unquestioning support. As for my own generation, turns out Hannah, the daughter of my parents old Uni friends, has a partner who is compiling and crucially printing out all the basic survival resources he can find on the internet, in case of internet failure. Had an amusing discussion with an undergrad son of another set of my parents friends about the internet and how much energy it takes to run, while a delicious salmon and cauliflower cheese lunch came out of the oven. As our tummies rumbled, he attempted to argue that demand for the internet would keep growing across the world, even as our capacity to power it lessened. ‘But Bernard, if it’s down to a choice between internet and food?’ ‘Well, actually demand for food isn’t…’ (tails off as a tray of cauli cheese wafts past). No, even a 20 yr old undergrad can’t debate away the need for food!
Internet or food? Internet or clean water? Internet or electric light? Internet or heat in the winter? Some people will be able to have both, but with so many who can’t- at least not 24 hours like now- much of the content we currently use may thin out and go out of date.
I’ve had a broken camera for the past few months, but I’m about to get a new one so I can finally start getting to grips with this beast. Watch this space for more clips in the next few days.
I’ve ben planning a film on the subject of a looming catastrophic crash in our current way of life for a few years. I’m very interested in the divide between people who believe this will happen and those who haven’t really thought about it, and also among those who are physically attempting to prepare and those who believe but don’t act on it at all.
I was inspired to make this film because of my husband Sam, who has been looking into Peak Oil issues for some years. For a rundown on Peak Oil issues and to see what some other people are doing to prepare for this particular catastrophe, see http://powerswitch.org.uk/forum/
Some friends of mine are more concerned about climate change, others more preoccupied with pollution, Nuclear war or meltdowns. Others are expecting sudden devastation from a renegade fragment of the sun or spinning amorphous superstition around the 2012 deadline.
For a very well informed man’s views on the subject of Collapse, check out Dmitri Orlov: http://cluborlov.blogspot.com/
A compelling, intense and emotional doc/monologue from ex-policeman turned activist and author Michael Ruppert- ‘Collapse’ (Dir. Chris Smith). Find Ruppert here: http://www.collapsenet.com/
Either way, my current working life spent in theatre, film and on Twitter is unlikely to provide me with the skills necessary to withstand the tidal wave of crushingly horrific Future that’s on its way.
So Sam has persuaded me to say farewell to Brizzle for a while and sail the seas in a £500 ebay boat picking up survival skills and meeting others who are acting on their fears of the future. I’ll be making a film about it and keen to hear from others with similar ideas- or better, completely different ones- and maybe meet and do some filming. Or maybe you think we’re nuts? If you can be polite and reasonable about it, let’s debate it.
On my last film “Invisible Circus: No Dress Rehearsal” I shot and cut pretty much the whole thing myself. I got feedback from a few people all along the way- mainly Sam- but at the end I needed 12 strangers to help get the final perspective to finish it. It’s being released in 2011 with Future Artists: http://futureartists.co.uk and has had two sellout screenings in Bristol, one at The Cube (www.cubecinema.com) on Feb 5th and now at the Watershed Media Centre (watershed.co.uk/exhibits/2913/) on 28th May.
Here’s the website with a link to the trailer: www.invisiblecircusfilm.com
I’m at a very early stage with this project but it’s quite a personal one so outside perspectives are important- and having support and input from others at Day 1 will hopefully help the process along massively.
Please refer anyone you know who thinks about this stuff a lot to this blog. I’ll try to post interesting stuff about survival issues, from the perspective of an incompetent beginner in slight denial- and so will Sam, as a bit more of an expert.Be back soon,